LSO/Gardiner – review

Barbican, London

John Eliot Gardiner began the celebrations early for his 70th birthday last week when he presided over the nine-hour Bach marathon at the Royal Albert Hall on Easter Monday. His birthday concert with the London Symphony Orchestra may not have been on quite such a mammoth scale, but it was still imposing enough – an all-Stravinsky programme that focused on two of the greatest of his neoclassical achievements, Apollon Musagète and Oedipus Rex.

Fine though the LSO strings' performance of Apollo was, with Gardiner finding exactly the right balance between chaste classicism and sensual expansiveness, it proved no match for the dramatic immediacy that coursed through his account of Oedipus Rex. Stravinsky did his best to distance the classical tragedy from the audience, ritualising the work as an "opera-oratorio", setting the main text in Latin and separating the scenes with Jean Cocteau's elliptical narration, which is usually delivered in the audience's own language, but was spoken here in the original French by Fanny Ardant. But from the moment the men of the Monteverdi Choir launched into the opening chorus, there was no mistaking the directness here, with just enough theatrical trappings – mask-like white makeup for most of the protagonists, a blindfold for the seer Tiresias, bloodied eyes at the end for Oedipus – to underline the work's hybridity.

Stuart Skelton was the suavely plausible Oedipus, perfectly calibrating his change from swaggering self-confidence, to horror-struck despair. Jennifer Johnson was a formidable Jocasta, venomously spitting out her dismissal of the oracles while Gardiner thrillingly energised the cascading wind instruments beneath her; Gidon Saks was an oleaginous Creon, ratcheting the drama up another notch in his only aria. Not a single dramatic detail was missed; Gardiner ensured that everything was vividly present and straight to the dramatic point.

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Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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