The many faces of Stravinsky make him an ideal subject for a concert series. From the Russian point of view there are two Stravinskys, in particular, that really matter – the youthful composer whose music is rooted in native Russian folklore and the later citizen of the world, who was to absorb such an exhaustive range of western influences.
The London Symphony Orchestra’s short series, devised by Valery Gergiev, straddles the two. In the space of less than a week the programme is embracing small-scale works at St Luke’s, concerts which include music for stage and church at the Barbican, and – the popular climax last Saturday – an open-air performance of The Rite of Spring in Trafalgar Square.
On the night before, the first concert at the Barbican presented an overview of the composer’s musical journey in reverse chronological order – an unavoidable necessity if the evening is to end with the early Stravinsky that most people love best. The Mass of 1948, as austere as anything he wrote, strips harmony down to essentials and uses only archaic-sounding wind and brass. The London Symphony Chorus was well rehearsed, but the Mass responds best with a more compact choir and a sharper, brighter cut to the playing than Gergiev achieved.
The Violin Concerto of 1931 finds the composer on the way towards that pared-down style. Without any exaggeration, the soloist, Leonidas Kavakos, gave the rhythms the kick they needed and his elegant, clean-cut way with Stravinsky’s Baroque ornamentation was matched by equally stylish orchestral playing.
It was with the ballet score for The Firebird, though, that the concert took off. Given Gergiev’s long, hands-on experience of Russian folk tale and fantasy in his native operas at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, it should be no surprise that he is most in sympathy with this side of Stravinsky. Setting aside the tooth-pick-sized baton he had used earlier, Gergiev fluttered his fingers at the orchestra and was rewarded with gossamer-light playing and a glittering atmosphere to evoke the Firebird’s magic world. This was the full 1910 version for huge orchestra, including myriad solos for the LSO’s highly skilled wind players, especially flutes and clarinets. They shone, and so did Gergiev, for whom the early Stravinsky is a soulmate in Russian romanticism.
‘The Rite of Spring’ is repeated at the Barbican tonight and the festival concludes with an evening featuring jazz-inspired pieces at St Luke’s on Thursday. The LSO then moves to the Konzerthaus in Vienna for two further Stravinsky concerts on May 20 and 21