Concert review: Brilliant lineup of Prokofiev's best works by London Symphony Orchestra

Principal conductor Valery Gergiev (centre) and the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) performing at the Esplanade Concert Hall on Thursday, Nov 20. On Thursday, the second night of their Singapore stopover, principal conductor Valery Gergiev
Principal conductor Valery Gergiev (centre) and the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) performing at the Esplanade Concert Hall on Thursday, Nov 20. On Thursday, the second night of their Singapore stopover, principal conductor Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra presented an all-Prokofiev programme at the Esplanade Concert Hall. -- PHOTO: ESPLANADE

On Thursday, the second night of their Singapore stopover, principal conductor Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) presented an all-Prokofiev programme at the Esplanade Concert Hall. It may have attracted a slightly smaller audience, just less than a full house, but was reckoned by many attending to be an brilliant lineup of the composer's best works.

Most conductors seem intent on setting new speed records on the Symphony No. 1 ("Classical"), but Gergiev broke the mould with comfortable tempos for the first three movements, and a brisk but unhurried finale. The finesse and obvious ability of all the musicians made for a polished performance, although some of the wit peppered in Prokofiev's symphonic homage to Haydn was lacking.

Chronologically the Piano Concerto No. 3 sits nicely between the opening and final works, and encapsulates the widest range of Prokofiev's compositional techniques, with substantial parts for soloist and orchestra. A sweet clarinet passage opened the concerto, gradually building up to a forceful entrance for the piano.

Denis Matsuev plays with bravura, and the concerto provided an ideal vehicle to show off pianistic ability. He excelled in the percussive and dramatic passages, and was no less convincing in lyrical sections, and totally revelled in the glissandos. As much as he was dazzling in his control and massive dynamics, a fully satisfying performance of the concerto calls for greater regard for the splashes of irony, levity and delicacy to be found in the writing.

There were signs that the strain of a taxing international tour was taking its toll, and following some perplexing gesturing on the first stand of the violins, the concertmaster made a hasty departure from stage, and co-leader Carmine Lauri had to take his place leading the LSO for the final minutes of the concerto through the second half of the concert.

The Symphony No. 5 seemed to reinvigorate the orchestra, and Gergiev and the LSO were intent on giving every ounce remaining to the music. The LSO's strings had already impressed thoroughly in the "Classical" Symphony, and winds were splendid in the concerto. What was most admirable was the quality of sound and evenness of playing to be heard, from the first to last desk of every section in the orchestra.

There were excellent solos by trumpet, flute, clarinet and oboe, but whether in sectional or full orchestral passages, the sounds blended in total harmony and coherence. The renowned LSO horn section impressed throughout, whether playing with woodwinds, brass or full orchestra, and two lesser mentioned instruments - the tuba and timpani - were the outstanding bedrocks of the symphony.

Maestro Gergiev deserves full credit for the performance of the symphony, which was complete in every sense. His deceptively subtle gestures exerted enormous influence on the playing, and his sense of direction in every work helped make the concert, especially the second half, a memorable and satisfying experience.