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Review: Valery Gergiev leads the London Symphony in Costa Mesa

March 20, 2009 |  3:00 pm


On Wednesday and Thursday nights, Valery Gergiev led incomparably great performances of Prokofiev’s two great symphonies –- the Fifth and the Sixth –- with the London Symphony Orchestra in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa. The celebrated Russian conductor stood erect and looked imperious. He wiggled his left hand, as he is known to do when he needs more expression from the strings or simply wants to drive his more ardent female admirers into a frenzy, but not nearly as much as he once did.

The wild man of the Mariinsky Theatre was not wild. He did not look haggard or haunted as he usually does. He didn’t jump around much.  But this lion can still roar and mean it. There were moments in the symphonies of such ferocious dramatic intensity and dangerous volume that if sound could bite off heads, it would have.

The last time Gergiev came to Orange County, a famously overachieving conductor showed signs of finally having taken on too much: As part of the opening festivities for Segerstrom in 2006, he led his spirited Mariinsky company in a complete staging of Wagner’s “Ring,” a number of performances of Shostakovich symphonies and several performances of “Boris Godunov” -- with no off days, off hours or even off minutes and no time for proper rehearsals.  Despite some genuinely exhilarating moments, the performances felt scrappy. By the end, conductor, musicians and audiences were all wrecks.

Besides running the Mariinsky ragged and gadding around the world touring with his company and guest conducting, Gergiev is music director of the London Symphony, a post he assumed two years ago. And he has hardly been a slacker in the British capital, having already performed and recorded Mahler’s nine symphonies with the LSO –-the Eighth is just out on CD. This tour is Prokofiev-centric. It is scheduled to wind up this month in New York, where Gergiev and the LSO will play all seven Prokofiev symphonies, along with the composer’s two violin concertos and two of his piano concertos, at Lincoln Center.

In Costa Mesa, two Beethoven piano concertos –- the Fourth on Wednesday and the Fifth on Thursday –- replaced Prokofiev, and they were of little matter. Alexei Volodin, a young Russian with a fluid keyboard technique and a refined but unremarkable approach to the concertos, was the soloist. Gergiev used an uncommonly large orchestra for Beethoven. He made interesting massed sounds and let the timpani rip in the “Emperor” (the Fifth). But with an uninspired soloist, his heart didn’t seem in the performances.

Prokofiev was another matter. Ever since taking over the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg in 1998, Gergiev has championed Prokofiev, reviving neglected operas, the lesser-known symphonies (only the First, Fifth and Sixth are standard repertory even in Russia) and controversial odes to Soviet dictators. In 2004, he recorded all seven symphonies in live performances with the LSO for the Philips label. That brilliant set, released in 2006, won numerous awards and solidified his relationship with the LSO just as critics were beginning to include the orchestra among the handful of the world’s best.

That reputation was completely justified by these Costa Mesa concerts, presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County.  Gergiev’s idea of orchestral sound is bottom up. He can never have enough bass, and from that foundation he builds complex sonorities. There is always a weight and density to his sound, and sometimes you feel as though he is cutting through air as thick and heavy and polluted as that in St. Petersburg.  Nothing is ever simple or straightforward with Gergiev.

On Wednesday, he began with Prokofiev’s First Symphony, known as the “Classical” for its light Mozartean tunefulness and neo-Classical structure. It was anything but light or Mozartean here.   Gergiev seemed far more interested in the rules that the symphony broke than in the ones it followed. 

But that was mere prelude to the crushing, crashing weight the conductor brought to the Sixth Symphony on Wednesday or the Fifth on Thursday. Written in the late years of World War II and just after, these works inevitably convey the hardship of life in Russia. Prokofiev’s health was not strong physically or, in a toxic Stalinist environment, mentally or politically.

In the Fifth Symphony, he fell back on some of the same neo-Classicism as in the First to hold himself together. He tried to follow the Soviet feel-good model of Shostakovich’s Fifth to stay out of hot water. Yet a gripping urgency, a need to wring his heart out, can be felt in every movement. Gergiev caught the yearning essence of the slow movement and drove the score with unrelenting passion.

In the more chaotic Sixth, he bore on his shoulders the sheer weight of the world, Prokofiev’s pain and his pleasures. Winds were sweet and sour. Strings were a pulsing, vibrating, living sound. The brass raged. The percussion mowed down everything in its path.

For 20 years, I’ve considered Gergiev to be at his best the greatest Russian conductor since Mravinsky.  Now when at his best, as he was in these Prokofiev symphonies, he has become the greatest Russian conductor.  Period.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Valery Gergiev conducts the London Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday night in Costa Mesa.  Credit: Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times