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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Concert Review: The Leadership Gap

Valery Gergiev conducts Brahms at Lincoln Center.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Valery Gergiev led the London Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday night at Avery Fisher Hall.
The London Symphony Orchestra are one of England's most prominent, an ensemble known for its lush, vibrant string sound, powerful brass and precise approach to music making. However, on Wednesday night's concert at Avery Fisher Hall, the second of two Lincoln Center performances devoted to the music of Johannes Brahms, those qualities were dimmed by the conducting of current LSO Principal Conductor Valery Gergiev.

Balance problems were audible from the opening bars of the Piano Concerto No. 1. The stern opening theme sounded blurred, the familiar pauses slightly out of "whack." Those issues persisted as the theme moved around the orchestra and developed. At the first repetition of the tutti (just before the entry of the piano soloist) a clamor of many voices replaced Brahms' mighty shout.

Pianist Denis Matsuev was better, playing the complicated, and fully integrated solo part with power and precision. The bear-like Siberian pianist proved himself a sensitive, lyric artist as he integrated himself into the orchestral fabric, bursting forth in flourishes of melody and an occasional flash of brilliant prestidigitation.


The quality of sound and orchestra tone improved in the central slow movement, with the Londoners displaying their trademark sound, glowing strings and burnished brass. Mr. Gergiev drew sensitive playing from the woodwinds, and the hulking Mr. Matsuev showed that an artist of his physical prowess could still play with great sensitivity. The movement was redolent of meditative calm, an eye in the forceful Brahms hurricane.

Mr. Matsuev opened the final movement, playing the complex, Bach-like fugue that leads off the rondo with perfectly placed arpeggios and tremendous accuracy. The orchestra seemed content to follow the pianist's lead in this last movement, as the leaders of the LSO string sections looked as if they were taking their cues from the soloist, not Mr. Gergiev's gestures.

Brahms' Fourth Symphony broke new ground in its combination of 19th century orchestration with 18th century ideas (a dance movement in duple meter and the famous final Chaconne. The London musicians played with superb professionalism in the first movement, but the orchestra continued to sound tentative, without the command and lyric sweep that is written into this score.

The London horns dominated the second movement, a mournful march taken here at a very slow speed by plucked violins and cellos This built to an impressive climax, serving as the perfect lead-in to the double-time scherzo with its cheerful main theme and chiming triangle. The big choruses of brass and wind sounded curiously muffle here, although the strings were vibrant in the Bach-like descending thirds.

Brahms closed his last symphony with the chaconne, a complex series of variations drawn from a theme that originally appears in a Bach partita. This movement calls for precise leadership. Mr. Gergiev gyred on the podium, waving his arms and flapping his fingers back and forth in a succession of mysterious gestures. Occasionally, would indicated parts of the beat. However, the talent and experience of the LSO players allowed the piece to close in a final, triumphant statement.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.