STRAVINSKY The Firebird BARTÓK Piano Concerto No 3
Most LSO Live recordings rigorously eschew applause and include some remedial patching. This one has a different purpose, consciously intended to capture the thrills and spills of the band’s collaborations with their toothpick-wielding former helmsman. His farewell concerts as LSO chief were marketed, to the wry amusement of some, as ‘Valery Gergiev – Man of the Theatre’. The conductor’s notoriously over-stuffed schedule had often found him in St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre when he might have been expected at London rehearsals. That said, these final programmes played to his strengths and were followed by a successful US tour from which the present offering is drawn. The location is not one of the famous East Coast halls but Newark’s New Jersey Performing Arts Center, a modern multi-purpose venue like London’s Barbican Hall and, on this evidence, acoustically superior to it.
Most impressive, unsurprisingly enough, is the performance of Stravinsky’s Firebird on the second CD. Long a speciality of the maestro, his commercial recording (Philips, 7/98) remains highly thought of. Red in tooth, claw and branding, it was made at a time when the Mariinsky company was still known by its Soviet-era Kirov tag. Little has changed in 20 years. Gergiev still makes an alarming burst of speed at the end of ‘Kashchei’s Infernal Dance’, taking even further risks elsewhere. With the addition of plentiful vocalising from the podium, ‘The Princesses’ Khorovod’ can rarely have been moulded so personally. This is one score whose every detail continues to fire the imagination of its director, the playing suitably spectacular. An ecstatic audience is rewarded with a shard from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, another beloved party piece.
Listeners may return less often to the first CD. It seems odd to be presented with a foreshortened Miraculous Mandarin Suite alongside a complete Firebird and, though the rendition is predictably gung-ho and calculatedly sleazy, its less confident moments may call into question Gergiev’s palsied semaphore. The Third Piano Concerto won’t be much of a draw in a competitive field, the microphones tending to inflate Yefim Bronfman’s unforced pianistic presence. The first movement feels unhelpfully literal in any event; the second, a little unsettled in pacing and atmosphere, is made to seem over-bright. Was the interaction with Gergiev relatively fleeting? Bronfman’s impregnable technique is not in doubt in the lively finale.
A curate’s egg, then, and hence perhaps an apt souvenir of Gergiev’s turbulent reign.