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S & H Concert Review

MAGIC: Prokofiev, Stravinsky Alexander Toradze (piano); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Valery Gergiev. RFH, February 19th, 2003 (CC).


Forming part of the LPO’s month of magic (music of enchantment and sorcery), this concert also formed part of ‘Prokofiev 2003’, a collaboration between The Serge Prokofiev Association ( and Boosey & Hawkes to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death. Rare Prokofiev vied with the lush late Russian Romanticism of Stravinsky’s Firebird (complete) to produce a mouth-watering programme.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 44 (1928) reworks some of the music from The Fiery Angel (1919-27). The story of the opera certainly highlights the magical connection; the principal figure, Renata, has erotic visions of a fiery angel, and uses black magic to contact him. During the course of the piece she infects a convent with hysteria. This was a superb performance, obviously intimately rehearsed. Under Gergiev’s ever-precise yet always expressive beat, the orchestra gave their best. Despite their violence and dissonance, the opening chords were also expertly balanced, ushering in a movement of tremendous energy and vitality. Prokofiev’s imagination seems to work overtime in this piece: an astonishing, fluttering passage immediately brought an aural link to the Stravinsky of the second half, and the shadowy world of the second theme brought with it some very descriptive writing. The link to the symphony’s dramatic roots was very aurally evident.

The remainder of the symphony seemed to get better and better. Moments of disquiet balanced the sweet tenderness of the Andante; the bittersweet trio balanced the remarkable, very busy strings of the Allegro agitato; and finally, the finale was a virtuoso demonstration in how to conjure up a visceral essential nature yet still present carefully-delineated textures. This was a long way from being a mere opener.

It would appear that some of the rehearsal time for the same composer’s Fifth Piano Concerto of 1932 may have been purloined by the symphony, as the fiendishly difficult Toccata brought an aberration almost certainly brought about by corner-cutting. However, there remained much to admire here. Alexander Toradze has a hard, brittle sound which suits Prokofiev’s spikiness (his complete cycle is available on Philips 462 048-2), but which does not bend under pressure. Humour abounded in the second movement, with its glissandi against the wonderfully managed orchestral tread. Filigree was feather-light in the Larghetto.

The theme of magic was certainly evident in Stravinsky’s ballet, The Firebird (first performed in 1910 at the Paris Opera). Gergiev highlighted the fantastical side of Stravinsky’s scoring: the ‘Entrance of the Firebird’ was a picture in sound, with flutes flickering playfully. The sheer invention of this score is breathtaking, and the orchestra seemed to immerse themselves in this aural extravaganza. The delicate scherzo music that accompanies the entrance of the thirteen maidens was virtuoso: the ensuing (and famously extracted) Round Dance which follows was tender, but on the fast side. Hardly surprisingly, the ‘Infernal Dance’ was fast and furious (occasional scrappiness in the strings was a small price to pay). The string tremolandi as Katschei’s palace vanishes were truly beautiful: a pity that the rubato applied to the horn solo at the beginning of the finale sounded false.

It is fairly rare that a concert remains in the memory for the first piece in a three-item programme, but that is certainly the case here.

Colin Clarke

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