Russian music is much in the London Symphony Orchestra’s sights this month – as it has been since Valery Gergiev became principal conductor in 2007. Thursday’s concert focused on Scriabin, whose oeuvre, little known in the UK, seems a match for Gergiev’s instinctive grasp of mood and colour. These performances of the Second and Fifth Symphonies were part of a Scriabin conspectus that will make a welcome addition to the orchestra’s discography on LSO Live.
But another, less welcome aspect of Russia has recently loomed into view – its politics – and the tone here is not so harmonious. Following a gay rights protest against Gergiev on the stage of the Barbican last October (preceded by similar demonstrations in New York), the Peter Tatchell Foundation has tried to maintain pressure by lobbying the media and continuing to picket his concerts: about 30 campaigners protested outside the Barbican on Thursday.
As a prominent Russian with links to President Vladimir Putin, whose anti-gay legislation has attracted attention in the west, Gergiev is a sitting target for such a campaign. He has the kind of visibility gay activists need to target Putin’s repressive policies. Judging by Thursday’s protest, Russian military action in Ukraine has become an additional stick with which to beat Gergiev.
There is little doubt the conductor’s position is compromised. Deep down he is a nationalist, as his ill-judged support for the Russian intervention in Georgia in 2008 demonstrated. At his two Mariinsky theatres in St Petersburg, he has 3,000 employees on his payroll and a rich tradition to maintain. No other figure could raise the kind of money that Gergiev does to keep the Mariinsky going. Much of that money comes from members of the Putin circle. If Gergiev is presented with a petition in support of government policy, he is obliged to sign – unlike prominent freelance musicians such as Denis Matsuev and Yuri Bashmet, who have foolishly toed the line.
There is no way the leader of a prominent Russian institution can condemn the country’s president – just as there was no way Shostakovich could condemn Soviet totalitarianism. If Gergiev did, his power-base in Russia would vanish overnight. As he prepares to exchange the LSO for the Munich Philharmonic next year, his best hope is to maintain his current show of calculated haziness, neither speaking up for Putin nor actively distancing himself.
One thing is clear: Gergiev is not anti-gay. In 1991, shortly after taking responsibility for the Mariinsky, he engaged a gay director, Graham Vick, to stage Prokofiev’s mighty War and Peace. Since then much of the company’s most distinguished work has involved gay artists – including Paul Brown, Paul Curran, Jonathan Kent and David McVicar, all luminaries of the UK opera world. Gergiev has explicitly advocated equal rights.
There were no protests inside the hall on Thursday. The music did the talking. The muted brass introit of Messiaen’s L’ascension may have sounded raw and raucous, but the performance quickly gathered momentum and intensity – qualities that would have been useful in Scriabin’s heavily overwrought Fifth Symphony, his “Poem of Fire”, which Matsuev, the piano soloist, played like Gershwin.
The concert’s second half was devoted to Scriabin’s Second Symphony, which emerged blessedly free of the hothouse atmosphere drowning the Fifth. Gergiev was in his element, firing up the musicians in the boisterous outer movements and stressing elegance in the sensuous slow centrepiece. Here was the unadorned Russian soul – apolitical and all-embracing.
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