Music Review: London Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center

Pianist Alexei Volodin showed sensitivity in his solo.
Pianist Alexei Volodin showed sensitivity in his solo.
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 30, 2009

When the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev came to the Washington area in November, he offered a program of two large Prokofiev works and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 with the soloist Alexei Volodin. Saturday afternoon at the Kennedy Center, he offered two large Prokofiev works and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 with the soloist Alexei Volodin. Maybe Gergiev, who has been called mercurial, is trying to establish a reputation for more consistency.

The difference was the orchestra -- and it was a considerable difference. Nothing against the players of the Mariinsky Orchestra, who performed with him at George Mason University in the fall, but the London Symphony Orchestra, which he led on Saturday, is one of the finest in the world. Both orchestras are Gergiev's -- he's artistic and general director of the Mariinsky and principal conductor of the LSO -- but each has its own distinctive sound: The Mariinsky's is lithe and a little wiry, the LSO's, full and vivid. The real test comes at moments when the conducting is perfunctory, which in Gergiev's case are frequent: He moves rapidly and doesn't always dig into the music. The Mariinsky, at such times, sounded perfunctory, while the LSO still usually managed to achieve rich tone, focused solos and playing that was a real pleasure to listen to. Of course, it also had the more engaging program: two symphonies instead of the ballet music the Mariinsky offered (a suite from "Cinderella" and an act of "Romeo and Juliet").

Saturday's program would have been a great teaching tool for anyone wondering how much a performance is informed by a conductor and how much by the level of the orchestra. It started with Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony, a sparkling, delightful work that under Gergiev sounded heavy and sluggish, even though the orchestra played beautifully.

There was none of the dry crispness of classicism in Gergiev's reading, which drew everything into a smooth legato -- an oddly laid-back approach from a conductor whose hallmark is an itchy kind of nervous energy. Gergiev finally released the speed he had held in reserve in the final movement, which was played hell-for-leather, but it was too little too late, rousing but not fully satisfying. However, the final chords were beautifully elegant, like an ornamental scroll giving a well-proportioned finish to a table leg.

It was also thanks to the orchestra that the Beethoven Fourth Concerto sounded a lot more vivid than it had in November. Volodin is a competent soloist with all the right ingredients -- sensitivity, musicality, technique -- but without, to me, the big personality to bring them together and grab attention. To his credit, he is not merely a thunderer -- some of his best work came when he was gently caressing phrases from the keys. But his interpretive gestures seemed sometimes like tics -- little breaks in the fingerwork that flowed across the keyboard, or a veritable salad of tempos in the interplay between solo passages and conductor in the last movement.

Still, there was a lot to like about the concerto, though most of it came from the orchestra and happened in the piece's second half. Best of all was the end of the second movement, when the orchestra sustained a gorgeous, reverent hush; Gergiev continued the gesture into the third movement, which began in an unusually subdued mode and took a while to shake off its dreaminess and rouse itself for the bracing restatement of the opening theme. It was a great start to a third movement that I found delightful, and that led to an encore from Volodin, a Rachmaninoff prelude, before the intermission.

But Gergiev didn't sound fully involved until the final work, Prokofiev's Sixth Symphony. And even this offered more a collection of memorable episodes than a strong through-line. This symphony is an interesting illustration of musical communication: Abstract though it may be, there's no doubt that, written shortly after World War II, it's saying something direct about the darkness and pain that leaven beauty. The orchestra made much of the work's statements: the sweeping grandeur of the second movement, or the celesta and harp dancing together in a kind of wistful automation, like a mechanical clock. The only real blemish in the playing, throughout the evening, were the horns, which sometimes sounded strained when reaching for a high note.

Gergiev may be an erratic conductor, but he's a smart one. He knows where every piece is going and seems to get more interested as it gets there. This symphony's final movement sets a lilting theme, like a ray of dancing light, against a lowering background of darkness (at first gently etched by the timpani) that ultimately wells up to swallow the whole picture. Interestingly, the conductor achieved here the sparkling insouciance that the "Classical" Symphony had lacked, perhaps because he could play it off against something more substantial. In the end, though, the orchestra swells up into an unbearable wall of sound, touched with the acid of the blaring brass; cuts off in a deadly silence; cries out once more; and ends with a sinister dance of death as the timpani comes into its own. This is the sort of thing Gergiev responds to, and with the radiant power of the LSO behind him it made for a strong end to an afternoon that was at once uneven and engrossing.

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