A season of Prokoviev is upon us, and if you like Russian music, London is the city for you
A season of Prokoviev is upon us, masterfully placed within a fantastic extended Russian series presented by the London Symphony Orchestra under Valery Gergiev at the Barbican and then, in January, by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski at the Southbank. So if you like Russian music, London is the city for you.
The Barbican was delightfully ambitious in its programming on Thursday 24th when it celebrated the great Russian contemporary composer Sofia Gubaidulina, who reached eighty on the weekend. A resounding performance of Prokoviev’s Symphony No1 conducted by the masterful Gergiev gave way to the strangest concerto I have ever heard, but more about that later.
Prokoviev’s 1st Symphony has many familiar themes and motifs and is particularly classical in its form. He knew he was controversial in his avid continuation of the classical symphony. An excerpt from his diary explains how people will say “he wouldn’t leave Mozart to rest in peace and grabs him with his dirty hands” Perhaps this is a forerunner for the neo-classicism that Stravinsky would be most famous for several years later.
Gergiev, the Jack Nicholson of the conducting world, famously conducts ‘sans baton’, fluttering magical fingertips and the odd twitch of his shoulder make this master fascinating to watch. He does not let his orchestra indulge and a distinct elegance, particularly in the Gavotte of the third movement, is maintained throughout. It is always best to let the music speak for itself. Besides, there was plenty of opportunity for more of that Russian passion and sweeping Romantic melodies to flow forth in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no 5, performed in the second half.
I was discussing with a flute player friend of mine only the other week what actually makes a great conductor great. We had decided it was only fifty percent talent, the rest a combination of magnetism and charisma. Often they are at the helm of nearly two hundred instrumentalists and singers and when they raise a baton, or in Gergiev’s case hand, behold two hundred people will be poised for their first note. I’ve met a few greats in my time; it’s in the eyes, the contact and the intensity of music making. Oh and they know it too, there isn’t a famous conductor in the world who hasn’t had mistresses or a love life as dramatic off stage as on.
What followed next came as a complete surprise and I can say I’ve never seen or heard anything like it: a concerto for bayan and strings. I’m familiar with Piazzolla composing for bandoneon and orchestra, but this avant-garde Russian concerto was extraordinary. The bayan is a Russian form of piano accordion developed in the 1920’s and possessing a wider range than its Western counterparts.
Sofia Gubaidulina is famous for unusually orchestrated compositions encompassing themes of mystical spiritualism, electronic music and heavy percussion. Having already written for bayan she was so impressed by the Norwegian bayan player Geir Draugsvoll that she composed “Fachwerk” just for him and here he was in front of the LSO performing this concerto, producing the most extraordinary sounds I have ever heard.
Now I’m going to be honest. I’m not a fan of contemporary music but when something so fascinating and compelling occurs that you wonder at the unique, almost alien sounds that can emanate from one compact instrument, the performance becomes a piece of Art, more than music. I marvelled at the sheer oddness of it all and the audience too was transfixed. Draugsvoll is a terrific musical showman without being over the top. This single continuous movement of thirty minutes with strong percussion, haunting glissandos, diatonic chords and bellowing groans from the Bayan seemed like a combination of The War of the Worlds’ soundtrack, Messiaen’s Symphonie Fantastique and Stockhausen.
I was terrified and intrigued by this piece and thrilled that it was placed between Prokoviev and Tchaikovsky, otherwise I never would have experienced such a bewitching piece of music. So bravo to the Barbican, happy birthday Sofia Gubaidulina, and till we meet again dear Gergiev.
by Melinda Hughes
Photograph by Marco Borggreve