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Shostakovich & Tchaikovsky

Shostakovich Violin Concerto No.2, Op.129
Tchaikovsky Symphony No.1 in G minor, Op.13

London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
Sergey Khachatryan (violin)

Barbican Hall, London, 23 January 2011

Given previously on Tuesday 18th, there was a real anticipatory buzz before these repeat performances to a Barbican Hall packed to the rafters, and the concert delivered all that could be expected and more.

Neither work will have been well known to most of the audience, myself included. The more "inward" second of Shostakovich's Violin Concertos has not made it into the regular concerto repertoire, but the slight, wiry Sergey Khachatryan*, in 2000 the youngest ever winner of the Helsinki Sibelius Competition, held a still, rapt centre in front of what looked an indecently large LSO. But they matched his concentration and, under Gergiev's careful guidance, gave together a performance that will encourage revaluation and more attention to a neglected later Shostakovich work.

I'd heard Tchaikovsky No. 1 long ago, a student work of 1866, later revised, which was well received but that not enough to assuage the crippling self-doubt which pursued him through his career. I recognised a couple of its "big tunes" but mostly it was fresh and new to me - and all the better for that. The LSO's playing was attentive to Gergiev's careful moulding of the quieter music and his scaling of the build-ups to climaxes. There were numerous felicities on the way, notably from the wind soloists.

There are issues to consider, as there will be two opportunities to listen to these performances at home. Firstly, both the Tuesday and Sunday the concerts were scheduled to finish at 9.15, which they did. Why?

For older concert goers, it was a little strange to see the concerto soloist come on stage before a note had been heard. Preparation for the major works with a short overture or orchestral piece used to be a regular pleasure of old-time Symphony Concerts, just as others of us relished hearing an Overture in the Opera House before the curtain went up... Both those excellent conventions seem to have been jettisoned, to no advantage.

Do watch out for a future BBC R 3 broadcast of this same Sunday concert; crucial considerations will be whether the solo violin is balanced too close, which would change the feeling of the whole, and whether the range of volume, so carefully bult up by Gergiev, risks being vitiated by compression, which would run the risk of making the final long climax, with heavy brass and extra percussion, seem otiose.

That is less likely to result in the (separate) recording of the Tchaikovsky symphony for LSO Live CD, taken from both the concerts on 18th & 23rd. Will it be a case of choosing the "best bits" from the two performances, and splicing them together? Or just one of them, with possibly a very little "patching" from the other?

Most of the critics covered the first of the two concerts, but on 23rd it all sounded impeccable throughout (as you'll hear on the radio); so maybe they'll settle for that one, even without "patches"? The record's notes should give us a clue...(qv e.g their Ravel disc "recorded live 20 & 24 September 2009" etc).

Valery Gergiev is beginning to look more the great senior conductor, having discarded the slightly scuffy look of yore; with his expressively fluttering baton-less hands he appears to mesmerise orchestra and audience alike.

The LSO's Gergiev's Mahler series attracted controversy, but I don't think that Tchaikovsky generates such fierce partisanship? So this extended LSO/Gergiev Tchaikovsky series which runs for a full year (the LSO calls it Gergiev's Tchaikovsky, such is the marketing scale of composer/performer importance) bids fair to be a classic of this newish century, and collectable on LSO Live to put alongside others on your shelves.

Peter Grahame Woolf

*Enjoy Sergey Khachatryan talking and playing Khatchaturian's Violin Concerto on YouTube

For a detailed appraisal of these Barbican performances, see Edward Seckerson at theartsdesk