Wednesday 28 January 2009

LSO/Gergiev - Stravinsky and Bartók, 27 January 2009

Barbican Hall

Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring
Bartók – Bluebeard’s Castle

Judith – Elena Zhidkova
Duke Bluebeard – Sir Willard White

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev (conductor)

The Rite of Spring in the first half of a concert? One would have to find something truly extraordinary – and perhaps somehow still more than that – to preclude a feeling of anti-climax. Bluebeard’s Castle might not seem a bad choice, although I worried on account of the two occasions, both at Covent Garden, when I had heard it performed after Erwartung, one of the few works that in its breathtaking radicalism can leave Bartók’s opera sounding relatively conventional. A reversal of order would probably have helped – and could have granted an interesting feminist slant to the pairing, though this would hardly have been the case with Stravinsky’s ballet of annihilating female sacrifice. As it happened, none of this really mattered, since these performances under Valery Gergiev’s baton were disappointing.

The gravest danger facing performances of the Rite nowadays seems to be reduction of the work to the level of an orchestral showpiece. To Gergiev’s credit, this was not the case here; slickness was not the order of the day. And whilst there were moments of uncertainty, seemingly occasioned by imprecision of his beat rather than any orchestral deficiency, that was not really the problem either. Gergiev’s right hand was actually a surer guide than I have often seen it, though I remain baffled as to the function of the almost perpetually waving left hand. Surely he cannot always be asking for more vibrato? If so, the orchestra does not seem to be answering – and how could it? The principal problem for me was the episodic nature of the performance. It started well; Rachel Gough’s opening bassoon solo, whilst not perfect, had a natural, easy rubato, which fed in to the instrumental imitations and developments of that celebrated passage. Moreover, there was a real sense of something primæval coming to life thereafter, auguring well for a rite of spring generically as well as particularly. Then the tension dissipated and never really recovered. The last time I had heard the Rite live had been an astounding performance, with the very same orchestra, under Boulez. He had brought out the symphonic and non-symphonic unity of the work to an extent that I do not think I had ever previously heard. It may be invidious to draw a comparison with such an account but this came nowhere near. One could hear the balletic sections all too clearly, often with apparently little to connect them. There were several remarkable passages. I especially liked the sense of almost Wagnerian world-weariness with which the second part opened, followed by marvellous, ghostly muted trumpets. The percussion section was on excellent form and the strings dug commendably deep. But the performance was summed up by the strange slowing for the final Danse sacrale. There might be a case for this but here it sounded arbitrary, unmotivated.

It was a similar story with Bluebeard’s Castle. Only last season, Boulez again had conducted the LSO in this work. Somewhat let down by the Bluebeard, it had nevertheless been an excellent performance. It seems unwise to have repeated the opera quite so soon, especially with a conductor who is not especially known for his Bartók. Sometimes, of course, a new slant can be refreshing, occasionally revelatory, but not in this case. The LSO sounded dutiful, which is probably all that could be expected, given the uncertain direction. There were again some nice touches: some wonderfully insistent bass ostinati and a stupendous duo of percussionists sharing the xylophone for the opening of the door to the torture chamber. For the most part, however, Gergiev seemed uncertain where the music was leading. If one did not know the score, one would doubtless have been impressed to hear it for the first time, but that all-important sense of fatal progression was sadly lacking. This was a pity, since the vocal protagonists were both very good. Willard White, who also read the Prologue in Peter Bartók’s English translation, was as attentive to the text and its diction as I can recall hearing. His voice is not as black as that of some Bluebeards and the tone is not perhaps so menacing, yet this was a keenly intelligent portrayal. Elena Zhidkova was a revelation to me; I am certain that I should have recalled hearing her before. One sensed her aching to be on stage; indeed, one saw it too, when she could not help knocking in the air for the first door. The look on her face at the end was haunting indeed. She has a fine voice and puts it to good use, shaping her lines with musical and dramatic force. Her performance was all the more remarkable, given that she had stepped in at short notice, to replace an ailing Katarina Dalayman. I should be keen to hear her again, both in this work and in others. As it was, and despite the efforts of the soloists, there was little real tension until the build up to the opening of the final, seventh door. By then, it was far too late; it felt more like the seventeenth.