Valery Gergiev is 60, a milestone considered worthy of a special birthday concert. The age of 60 used to be when conductors “came of age”, but nowadays it’s twenty-something maestros who are venerated. Oldies are old hat, at least until they pass 80. Gergiev, a mere stripling, shows no sign of exchanging the fast lane for the slow – unlike the London Symphony Orchestra, which is already looking forward to a quieter, less frenetic existence when the St Petersburg dynamo moves on in two years’ time (next stop: Munich).
This concert was not so much a birthday bash – Gergiev’s 60th was more than three weeks ago, and the programme here found him exclusively in an accompanying role – as a love-in for friends and supporters. The one significant absentee was Vladimir Putin, who did turn up for the opening of Gergiev’s new Mariinsky theatre in St Petersburg on May 2. Also conspicuous by their absence were Richard Wagner, whose 200th anniversary fell on the same day as the concert, and Henri Dutilleux, the French composer whose music featured prominently in Gergiev’s programmes for the LSO a year ago but whose death a few hours before curtain-up went unmentioned.
It was a concert of two halves, the first being far more engrossing than the second. Alexander Toradze turned Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto into a rollercoaster of delicacy, majesty and daring, his spring-coiled attack in the quick-fire outer movements contrasting with an Andante of trance-like depth and stillness – so quiet that it was literally breathtaking.
Then came Leonidas Kavakos in a trio of gypsy-like confections for violin and orchestra by Paganini, Ravel and Sarasate – the kind of brilliant, slightly tawdry music that tempts violinists to show off. Kavakos ennobled each piece with his elegance and cool.
The grand finale was Act V of Les Troyens, giving LSO patrons a taster of the two-week Berlioz festival that Gergiev has programmed for next season. Two lusty Mariinsky soloists, Ekaterina Semenchuk (Didon) and Sergei Semishkur (Énée), sang in miserable French, which somehow defeated the purpose of bringing them all the way from Russia. But there was a good supporting cast, including the London Symphony Chorus, and Gergiev conducted with self-effacing grace.