London Symphony Orchestra/Gergiev, Barbican, London – review

This journey through Berlioz’s major orchestral works has had a rocky ride. Protests by gay rights campaigners against Valery Gergiev’s longstanding support for President Putin, following similar demonstrations in New York, have greeted several concerts, though not this penultimate event in the series.

With Gergiev having given notice that he will not continue as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra beyond 2015, these single-composer series are giving shape to his closing seasons. They also guarantee some new repertoire from him, after he explored the Russian composers to whom he is closest so exhaustively in his early years in London.

The Berlioz series has comprised eight concerts in London, together with some repeats in Paris, Essen, Brno and St Polten. In theory, the colourful theatricality of Berlioz should suit Gergiev, the born theatre conductor, better than Brahms or even Szymanowski, two other composers featured in similar series recently, but it has not always felt like that.

The Overture to Benvenuto Cellini set this concert off to a lively start, mostly well played. But the essential spark of Berlioz was missing: the ability to blend warm tone colours, which makes Gergiev’s performances of the Russian romantics so satisfying, robs Berlioz of his fiery detail. A similarly generalised feeling lowered the tension in the highly operatic solo cantata, La mort de Cléopâtre. It would have helped if Karen Cargill had made more of the words audible, but in other respects she was well cast. A mezzo-soprano with an imperious top to the voice but also softer qualities, she would surely make an imposing Dido in Berlioz’s grandest opera, Les Troyens.

The best of the three performances came last. Antoine Tamestit, the viola soloist, brought a strong, forthright personality to the hero of Harold en Italie, Berlioz’s tone-poem-cum-concerto loosely based on Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and Gergiev found enough atmosphere for Harold in the mountains and the muted awe of the pilgrims’ march. Overall, though, this summation of the Berlioz series was a mixed bag. Gergiev’s next composer is Scriabin, whose rarely-performed symphonies follow next spring, and those should prove more interesting.

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