Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances and Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements by Valery Gergiev and the

If it’s not a consensus that Valery Gergiev has brought new life to the British musical scene that hasn’t been seen in decades, it should be. The LSO is attaining new heights, playing on a super-virtuoso level that isn’t very far from their European rivals. Both Rachmaninov and Stravinsky are composers that seem well suited to Gergiev’s temperament. Since Gergiev’s Rachmaninov 2nd with the LSO was beyond compare, a new Rachmaninov release was cause for great anticipation from this listener.

Gergiev is often accused of being rushed and mechanical. These criticisms aren’t entirely unwarranted, but comparing his timing in the Symphonic Dances to fellow-Russian Ashkenazy’s, Gergiev is slower in every movement. Ashkenazy’s classic account is light in tone and spirit with the playing of the Concertgebouw to dazzle the listener. Gergiev takes a more deliberate approach. The crashing chords at the opening of the first movement aren’t just powerful, they’re hammer blows.

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But that’s not to say that his approach is a heavy-handed one. The thing that struck me that most was his ability to make the music sound fresh and effortless. These are dances and while Gergiev isn’t balletic, he finds a way to give the music a spontaneity that is apt for dance music. Ashkenazy is perhaps more danceable than Gergiev, but the latter is more dark and Russian in texture. I sense direction, a feel for the overall flow of the work. Gergiev had few peers when he took over the LSO, but he’s maturing. That is evidenced by the way he builds tension without letting go to soon, something particularly apparent at the closing of the final movement. For some, Ashkenazy’s lightness will be preferred above Gergiev’s brooding inspiration, but I think this recording is on a higher plane.

We enter a different world when we cross over into the Stravinsky. The product of a composer trying to convince the world with his newfound polytonalities, the symphony is full of jagged edges. My Rattle account with the Berlin Philharmonic was full of unrivaled playing, but Rattle tried to smooth out the work’s aggression and seemed to dawdle over every note and phrase, ultimately sounding mannered. Gergiev doesn’t match Rattle’s voicing abilities, but the absence of fussiness isn’t missed. I don’t sense that the work is being tamed; the LSO delivers even more bite than the Berliners. But Gergiev isn’t out to be menacing either. He doesn’t keep the music from sounding sarcastic and angry although I sense he’s trying to show us Stravinsky’s classicism. Some will be disappointed that Gergiev didn’t let hell break loose but he’s deeply committed. In fact, I’m not sure that jarring sounds are the main point of the symphony. Gergiev finds meaning in almost every bar, building momentum without losing the beauty of the individual moment. Ultimately this is a much more inspired reading than Rattle’s, but I wouldn’t have minded more aggressiveness.

It’s incredible to witness sensational musicians at the height of their powers. Gergiev is continuing to establish his reputation as one of the most exciting conductors alive and this disc catches him in great spirits.

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