It seems almost inconceivable that there could be any such thing as a little heard piece by Tchaikovsky, but that was exactly what we had here: his Hamlet Overture, which began the second half of the concert. It's cut from very much the same cloth as his considerably less unheard Romeo and Juliet Overture, which opened the show, and it would be nice to hear it again, if a few concert programmers might want to think beyond the blindingly obvious every now and again.
The main meat in this concert by the LSO and their principal conductor, the hardest working man in show business Valery Gergiev, was two works by a more recent Russian composer, Prokofiev. His Second Piano Concerto is a behemoth of a piece, and finds the composer in full-on enfant terrible mode. You need a big personality to stand up to this piece, and fortunately we had one in the form of the wonderful Alexander Toradze. I've seen him play this and other concertos before, and he's mesmerising to watch; a great bear of a man whose gesticulations as he prepares to attack the keyboard are an extraordinary sight, and who, when he's not playing (not that that happens often in this particular piece) turns round and pays keen attention to what the orchestra are doing. Entertaining as this eccentric stage presence is, it'd be nothing if he didn't have the musical intelligence to back it up, and he certainly does: there's a fierce intelligence to his playing, as well as an emotional depth, and a variety of touch that stretches from the most delicate playing to a full-on assault on the instrument. An extraordinary performer in an extraordinary piece, he receives rapturous applause at the end of this marathon, although strangely he suddenly seems to come over rather shy at this point, and I'm suddenly struck with a sense that he feels unhappy with his performance. I suppose it must be difficult to feel satisfied when your standards are this high.
Prokofiev's Seventh Symphony is at the other end of the spectrum. A product of the end of his life, it's tuneful and lush occasionally to the point of blandness, hardly recognisable as the same composer who wrote the concerto. It's partly a reworking of ballet music, and that's reflected in its simplicity: themes tend to be repeated rather than developed, and sometimes the material seems a bit thinly spread. By the end of his life when he wrote it, Prokofiev was a broken man, both in body and spirit, and what redeems the symphony is the palpable sense of this; beneath its surface sheen of divertimento atmosphere and lush yet oddly pale orchestration there's an overwhelming sadness suffusing it. Prokofiev later wrote an alternative, "upbeat" ending which sounds as tacked on as it is. Gergiev and the LSO eschewed this in favour of the original, which winds down to a wistful, heartbreaking close.