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Gergiev comes to Rotterdam with a top orchestra and top repertoire, but audiences are used to that from him

London Symphony Orchestra

Russian conductor Valeri Gergjev was back in Rotterdam for a while, for one concert. He performed in the Doelen his own orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO).

The famous orchestra played repertoire we know in our country from ear to ear: Gustav Mahler's 1st symphony and Dmitri Shostakovich's 1st piano concerto. A now historic combination: as the Netherlands seems to have become fused with Mahler's work, Gergyev's chief conductorship with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra provided the maestro with a good introduction to this music. And in reverse, Gergyev provided a good introduction to Shostakovich's music in the Netherlands.

The two composers are also often compared; Mahler's influence on Shostakovich is said to be great. In a technical sense this is true, certainly in the symphonic work of both composers there is an influence. But as soon as it comes to the story behind the notes, any comparison ends. Whereas Shostakovich was mainly thwarted by his environment - he suffered particularly badly from World War II and the subsequent regime under Stalin - Mahler struggled mainly with himself. Whereas Shostakovich always managed to put himself and his music into perspective, Mahler could not do so at all.

Shostakovich wrote his first piano concerto, actually the concerto for piano, trumpet and string orchestra in 1933. It was a time when social and political tensions were running high, translating into a nervously propelled forward artistic climate resulting in an unprecedented number of highs. Shostakovich's concert refers to this from the very first note. It is a circus piece in which notes and modulations tumble over each other. The piano constantly receives a reply from a trumpet, followed at the end by a mini-duel between trumpet and barpiano. Yet the lento, the slow second movement, is melancholic, though not heavy on the hand.

Yefim Bronfman was the delicately playing pianist. The former pupil of the legendary Leon Fleischer let the notes flow and tumble without letting things get messy. Quite an art, as the tempo was often on the fast side. He got fine opposition from trumpeter Philip Cobb.

Mahler's first symphony has as many banalities as Shostakovich's concerto. However, they are flatter, without that pointed sense of humour in the piano concerto. Much more obvious too, simpler. Father Jacob in minor had been done before, and the horn blaring in the Alpine meadow is, on closer inspection, not that innovative at all, even if it was perceived differently at the time during the first series of performances. Gergiev did the only thing you can do in such a sometimes endlessly rambling work: stretch the tension curve as far as possible. The Mravinsky arrangement of the orchestra (double basses at the back left, first violins opposite the second and altos and cellos reversed) made for excellent sound balance; Gergyev had the LSO on a string. And yet, despite its towering quality, it was not a truly surprising concert. For that, the Rotterdam audience got to know the conductor too well.

Grote zaal de Doelen, Rotterdam: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Valeri Gergjev with Yefim Bronfman piano and Philip Cobb trumpet. Works by Shostakowich and Mahler. Attended: Friday evening, 13 May.

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