LSO/Gergiev, Barbican, London

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Valery Gergiev has a lot to prove. Not musically: Tuesday’s concert, his first as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, underscored his gift for creating an adrenaline rush that makes the music stand up. Where he needs to prove himself is in the way he interprets his new job: will he have an impact beyond a handful of whirlwind visits each season? Are there hidden depths?

The LSO has just as much to prove: the responsibility for making this relationship work lies with its members, who must realise that St Petersburg, not London, comes first and second in Gergiev’s diary. Judging by their performance of Stravinsky’s complete Firebird, it probably doesn’t matter how little London sees of him as long as he inspires such seat-of-the-pants results, taking the LSO back to its old buccaneering style. But do we really need giant screens extolling the Gergiev personality cult? How crass.

This programme was devoted to his native Russian repertoire, beginning with Stravinsky’s brief, baffling cantata The King of the Stars, a piece that sounds like a song-sheet from Mars. Gergiev’s reading was far less high-definition than Boulez’s a few years back with BBC forces, but it was still instructive. Like Prokofiev’s tumultuous Scythian Suite, to which the LSO brought easy swagger and uncommon delicacy, it told us much about the stylistic maelstrom in Russian music in the immediate pre-first-world-war era, as 19th- century consonance fought a losing battle with 20th-century dissonance.

In Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments the focus shifted not just to the elite syncopations of the jazz-inflected 1920s but also to Alexander Toradze’s spring-coil pianism. This was not just a rollercoaster of emotional, technical and musical daring; it was an opera about a pianist who gambles his life with the notes and hits the jackpot. Yet the slow movement’s dark dappled reminiscences – the pining of a Russian exile – also rang true. ★★★★☆

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