London Symphony Orchestra, Barbican, London – review

After seven years at the helm of the London Symphony Orchestra, it might have seemed that there were no Russian composers left for Valery Gergiev to explore before he leaves the orchestra at the end of 2015. That, though, would be to overlook Scriabin, and it is his four symphonies, rarely heard in a complete cycle, that form a highlight of the LSO’s spring programme.

For Gergiev himself it will be a welcome opportunity to focus on the music. As a vocal supporter of President Putin, Gergiev managed to weather a storm of demonstrations by gay activists in the period leading up to the Winter Olympics, only to find himself at the eye of the hurricane over Russian policy in Crimea. For a while it looked as if his next position in Munich might be in jeopardy, but that threat seems to have lifted, at least for the time being.

It is easy to lose oneself in Scriabin’s hallucinatory world. An array of exotic sounds lure the listener into a whirlpool of dreamlike textures and rich, swirling colours. Although the Symphony No. 1 has six movements, at least four of them are so similar that it is difficult to tell them apart. All a performance needs to do is immerse itself in this very personal sound-world, and Gergiev and the LSO did that to heady effect, with fine support from mezzo Ekaterina Sergeyeva, tenor Alexander Timchenko and the London Symphony Chorus in the celebratory final movement.

Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 provided the contrast in the middle of the concert, though not in the way that might have been anticipated. This is usually regarded as the lyrical, sensitive one of Liszt’s piano concertos, but soloist Denis Matsuev had other ideas, pounding the keyboard with relentless brilliance – impressive, but not very appealing.

Then it was back to Scriabin and a performance of his Symphony No. 4, “The Poem of Ecstasy”, that was saturated in orchestral beauty. Gergiev has always drawn a finely blended, romantic sound out of the LSO. In this later symphony, with its pre-echoes of Stravinsky’s fairytale score for The Firebird, the combination of high-quality playing and Gergiev’s ability to get the music to pulsate with spontaneity will have won Scriabin new admirers.

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