LSO / Gergiev / Kavakos – review

Leonidas Kavakos
The Guardian (UK)

By Tim Ashley

Valery Gergiev's fascination with the music of Rodion Shchedrin continues to puzzle. The latest offering in the LSO's ongoing survey of his work was Lithuanian Saga, written in 2009 to mark both Vilnius's year as European Capital of Culture and the 600th anniversary of the defeat, at Tannenberg, of an army of Teutonic Knights by allied Lithuanian and Polish forces.

As with much of Shchedrin's output, we're conscious of a mix of worthiness and unoriginality. A thumping, brassy battle scene that invites comparison with Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky is followed by some grand ceremonial music reminiscent of the end of Stravinsky's Firebird. That Shchedrin is trying to emphasise continuities between pre-revolutionary, Soviet and post-Soviet music is clear and admirable, but there's also a lack of distinction in both material and scoring that perplexes.

The rest of the evening, however, reminded us just how exhilarating Gergiev can be when on form. Lithuanian Saga was followed by a performance of Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto that ranks among the greatest. Leonidas Kavakos was the soloist, supremely confident in the face of its technical challenges and marvellously alert to its profound emotional shifts. The climactic passacaglia, one of the great tragic statements of 20th-century music, was devastating in its directness and immediacy. Orchestral textures were sinewy and uncompromisingly stark. It received a standing ovation, richly deserved.

Finally, there was Tchaikovsky's Second Symphony, arguably his most problematic. There's no real slow movement, and the finale, which in Tchaikovsky's day sent many into raptures, now strikes us as repetitive. Yet the vigour of Gergiev's interpretation, all darting flashes of colour and contrast, was immensely appealing, and the finesse and panache of the playing were second to none. Very fine.