This weekend sees Valery Gergiev's final project as LSO Principal Conductor, a cycle of ballet scores from Bartók and Stravinsky, comes to a close. In this blog, we look back at the other ambitious projects that have defined his tenure...
Few conductors announce a full orchestral cycle for their first concerts with a new orchestra. But then again, few conductors are quite like Valery Gergiev and he wasted no time in announcing that his first concert series with the LSO back in 2007 would be the complete cycle of Prokofiev’s seven symphonies. These are challenging and demanding works. From the roaring finale of the first through to the hushed conclusion of the seventh, they require total commitment from the performers. Added to this, many of them are unfamiliar and rarely played. So what better way to introduce the Orchestra and audiences to these works than by total immersion, by programming every single one of these seven symphonies over the course just one week. As LSO Principal Flute Gareth Davies put it, ‘It was a bold statement of intent, and a thrilling, if terrifying week.’
The results were extraordinary, the reviews raving, the orchestra electrified and the audience left wondering what they could expect next from Gergiev and the LSO. It came as no surprise that he was announced as LSO Principal Conductor shortly afterwards, and that his next cycle would be even bigger: the full set of Mahler symphonies at the Barbican, with concurrent recordings for LSO Live. His debut release was the Symphony No 6, closely followed by the First, the Seventh, the Third, Second and Eighth that same year. In 2011, LSO Live collected all 10 of the symphonies together and created a lasting document to Gergiev’s landmark performances.
'It shows how Mahler's neurosis and Gergiev's volatility are ideally matched: this is no plain-sailing exercise in orchestral virtuosity, but a deeply wrought journey of the soul.’
- The Daily Telegraph on Gergiev’s Mahler Symphony No 6
Certainly not one to rest on his laurels, Gergiev’s next projects took on a new form. Rather than simply exhausting the oeuvre of a single composer each season he decided to curate each series around a theme and look for potent connections to unite the works. So the next series, ‘Émigré’ in 2008/09, dived into the legacy of the European musical exodus to America. He explored Rachmaninov, Bartók, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Korngold, and the music that came out of having their lives ripped apart by the political turmoil of the 20th century. Each one was different, but they were united in creating music that expressed their own individual feelings of displacement. One émigré in particular received special attention, Sergei Prokofiev, and this time it wasn’t just the symphonies: 16 works in total, spread across 41 concerts in 14 countries and 3 continents.
Dutilleux and Shchedrin
There’s no doubt that Gergiev can be a powerful advocate for the music that he loves (Prokofiev is his favourite composer) and he’s always shown a particular affection for lesser known works that deserve a wider audience. Henri Dutilleux might now be firmly established as a figurehead in music over the last hundred years, but many of his orchestral works had rarely been heard outside of his native France before Gergiev brought them to London in ‘20th Century Remembered’ from the 2009/10 season. The same with Rodion Shchedrin. Here was a composer revered in his native Russia (he became chairman of the Composer’s Association at the specific request of Shostakovich) yet his music was virtually unknown outside of his homeland. So what did Gergiev do? He made him the centrepiece of a series dedicated to the spirit of Russian music, proving that this great tradition is still alive and well.
Szymanowski and Brahms
The last few years have seen no letting up of Gergiev’s ambitions, with the 2012/13 season playing host to no less than two major projects programmed concurrently. First up, Szymanowski, the most significant Polish composer since Chopin, on the 75th anniversary of his untimely death from tuberculosis. He wrote four symphonies and a grand choral work on religious themes. Like Brahms, the subject of the second project that year. Pairing these two very different composers together in a shared retrospective gave audiences the chance to hear how both composers reacted to the same formal challenges: Brahms building up ever more elaborate sonic structures from even the tiniest of motifs, while Szymanowski explored glittering harmonies intricately woven out of his own unique brand of polyphony. Like Gergiev’s Mahler, both cycles were released on LSO Live, contributing to Gergiev’s ever-increasing back catalogue on the label.
‘Gergiev’s epic, dark Russian approach presents the music’s glorious harmonies and rich jewel tones.’
- The Buffalo News on Gergiev’s performance of Brahms' German Requiem
All of Gergiev's 27 releases (and counting) on LSO Live
And then there was Berlioz. The wild, rebellious Frenchman who taught himself how to compose, wrote a treatise on orchestration that was both practical and absurd (alongside encyclopaedic information on ranges, tunings, bowings, etc., there are whole chapters dedicated to extended techniques and imaginary instruments), abandoned all convention in his eponymous orchestral debut Symphonie fantastique, and wrote an 'impossible’ overture to his opera Benvenuto Cellini. Both of these last two works featured in Gergiev’s 2013/14 Berlioz focus, which culminated in two concert performances of Berlioz’s literary-inspired masterpieces The Damnation of Faust and Romeo and Juliet.
Scriabin and Messiaen
Gergiev’s French connection continued later that season with Messiaen, whose synaesthetic scores sat side-by-side to Scriabin’s in April 2014. Sadly, we were unable to find (or invent) a colour organ in time for the performance of the latter’s Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, but we doubt that the performances could have been any more dazzling. Gergiev’s Scriabin cycle was his last major retrospective as LSO Principal Conductor, and forms the basis of the final project of his tenure with LSO Live. Symphonies Nos 3 & 4 will be released on 30 October, with the remaining works set for release next year.
‘I don’t think I’ve seen Gergiev smile so much as during Poem of Ecstasy, a work he clearly loves and whose delicate and dance-like spirit he liberated.’
– The Times
Valery Gergiev gives his last London performance as LSO Principal Conductor on Sunday 18 October in a programme of Bartók and Stravinsky. Scriabin Symphonies Nos 3 & 4 will be released on LSO Live on 30 October. Pre-order your copy now, plus enjoy 20% off all Gergiev releases until the end of the month at lsolive.lso.co.uk