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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
The Miraculous Mandarin Suite, Op.19, Sz.73, BB82 (198-24 [20:07]
Piano Concerto No.3, BB 127, Sz.119 (1945) [23:48]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Firebird (1910) [48:00]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Romeo and Juliet, Op.61ter (1936): Montagues and Capulets [4:55]
Yefim Bronfman (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra/Valéry Gergiev
rec. live 24 October 2015, New Jersey Performing Arts Center
LSO LIVE LSO5078 [43:57 + 53:00]

These discs were recorded as part of Valery Gergiev’s final tour as Principal Conductor of the LSO. I encountered this team earlier in that tour as part of the 2015 Edinburgh Festival. However, I caught them nearly two months before this concert was recorded: the microphones arrived at what was clearly the end of a long tour and, sadly, you can tell.

The problems are most evident in The Firebird. It’s beautifully played, of course. In fact, you’d go a long way to hear a western European orchestra that’s as comfortable with Stravinsky’s virtuoso writing. The violins sound great in their lyrical moments, the winds are consistently colourful and the percussion dazzle. Furthermore, it’s so well recorded that you can hear the audience shifting in their seats during the primordial gloom of the opening.

But does it all just sound a bit dull, a bit routine? Everything is perfectly fine, but not much more than that, and I never felt the hairs prickle in the way that you should with such a magical score. Gergiev’s heart just doesn’t sound in it, especially compared with his Kirov CD and Mariinsky DVD, and the finale, in particular, feels decidedly peremptory.

Similar problems come out in the Miraculous Mandarin suite, which should make your hair stand up rather than prickle. Here it does that only ever fleetingly. The opening tones down the harum-scarum so as to render it almost tame, despite the clarity of the orchestral colours. The solo clarinet is very characterful in depicting the girl’s dances, and the strings both shudder and shimmer to depict the sexual nastiness of the scenario, but the performance never quite taps into the grit intrinsic in the score, though I grant that this problem is probably baked into doing the suite instead of the full ballet.

The Piano Concerto fares better, though that’s more down to the soloist than the conductor. Yefim Bronfman is impressively in control throughout. The music seems to flow from him, and the orchestral sound appears to orbit him rather than owing much to Gergiev. That’s particularly true in the lyrical second section of the opening movement, where the interplay with the orchestra feels almost spontaneous, and the piano’s beautiful simplicity at the opening of the second movement is breathtaking, the orchestral strings meeting it like a lover going in for a kiss. The ensuing filigree sections feels more detached, however, though this is pulled round by a brilliantly energetic finale.

However, Bronfman’s Bartók isn’t really a serious contender when you compare it with classics like Katchen/Ansermet, or even the more recent, brilliant recording from Bavouzet and Noseda. That’s also true of this double-disc set as a whole, unfortunately: satisfying in parts, but overall not really a goer.

Simon Thompson

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