These concert recordings cover Valery Gergiev’s tenure as principal conductor of the LSO (January 2007 to February 2015). A period of unsettled fortunes for the Orchestra, dividing opinion, it brought a mix of highs and lows. Some concerts were brilliant, others frankly auto-pilot affairs, knife-edge displays contrasted with loose carelessness, even disinterest. What motivated him artistically, musically and directorially wasn't always clear. Yes, the LSO played for him, but how often with him? Every now and again, the musicians saved the day. But occasionally even they'd lose the plot.
Rachmaninov – like Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky – is Gergiev's Russian bread-and-butter. Yet more than once over the years I've been at a loss to explain his whims. What drives the man, where is his heart, what do his hands tell us, what do his eyes and body language express of his cultural background, the pagan spirit and wilderness of his Caucasian Ossetian background? At best, hard to say. At worse, a closed book.
This audiophile four-disc set isn't without its moments. The Symphonic Dances (recorded May 2009) may not take off immediately (slower by nearly two minutes, the opening Non allegro is significantly softer-edged than both Svetlanov and Kondrashin), some of the point-making is indulgent, the joins are not always seamless, and the characterisation borders on the darkly lugubrious. But the detailing is often beautiful, and the LSO make a consistently fine sound, some of the solo cameos lingering in the memory (John Stenhouse's alto sax for one). With the First Symphony (February 2015), Gergiev's pulling around of tempo and phrases, his holding back of sections, is too often at the expense of structural cohesiveness and onward momentum (was that Glazunov's problem conducting the failed first performance in 1897?). No matter how often bass lines are weighted and drawn out, how often brass fanfares are clarioned, tragedy, pathos and heroism, the sense of tensioned theatre you find in, say, Ashkenazy's more electrifyingly recorded Concertgebouw account, is wanting.
The Second Symphony (September 2008) – velvet strings, plushy tuttis, neither brass nor percussion as transatlantically macho as in Previn's day – is given complete, including (relatively unusually) the exposition repeat of the first movement. At sixty-one minutes, Gergiev judges the ebb and flow of Rachmaninov's style with alacrity, giving us a textured, burgeoning canvas of bold vistas and solo glints. The development section of the first movement is particularly dynamic and urgent. One may disagree, in the last bar, with the spurious kettledrum on the third crotchet – but, contextually, it's in keeping with Gergiev's perceived need to heighten and colour the drama. Lyrically expansive in its slower episodes, the Scherzo wavers occasionally, the beat hastening in places, the overall tempo here and there erring on the side of lightweight, the staccato attack and imitative writing a touch lazy. The slow movement on the other hand (making the most of Andrew Haveron, violin, and Andrew Marriner, clarinet) soars to an inevitable, beautifully spotted C-major climax – one of those great Adagio pinnacles of the repertory on the road from Bruckner Seven to Khachaturian's Spartacus here cloaked and cadenced in throaty glory. Digging deep, the ongoing pulse, contrasts and adrenalin of the Finale add up to a showcase encounter, passionate and unstoppable – Gergiev as perhaps we'd best like to remember his London days.
Less analytically captured, the 'American' Third Symphony (November 2014) – antiphonal violins, basses to the left – is best for the first movement (including exposition repeat), but less arresting in the over-nursed second (finery before form), and a Finale that, restless time-shifts apart, indulges possibly too much in rhapsodic asides as well as a fugue more (academically) dutiful than (creatively) inevitable. If you want a view of the music that is cinematically, romantically nostalgic, the exiled guardian noble of old Russia looking back to the dark storms and late-summer haywains of his Tsarist youth, then Gergiev's approach is valid enough. But all round I find his interpretation less than fulfilling, not all his interventions, gear-changes or concerns with execution, however exquisite the latter, adding up to a sufficiently organic consummation.
Of the two Balakirev fillers, here sounding rather like second-hand Rimsky, polished but not especially memorable, rhythm and repetitive devices to the fore, Russia (November 2014) gels better than Tamara (February 2015). Masking the patchwork construction of either isn't Gergiev's forte. Orchestrally, though, the closing D-flat pages of Tamara are breathtakingly suspended, the closing lines of Lermontov's Georgian poem caught in music encircling the audience in a timeless dreamland: “Such a tender farewell, the voice was so sweet, it seemed to promise an ecstatic meeting, a loving caress.”