The second instalment of Valery Gergiev’s Prokofiev symphony-fest at Cadogan Hall was something a mixed bag. Although there was a lot that was right about the performances, it was surprising that, taken as a whole, there was something lacking across the whole evening.

Kristóf Baráti © Marco Borggreve
Kristóf Baráti
© Marco Borggreve

The evening kicked off with a comparative rarity, the composer's Fourth Symphony. Gergiev chose to present the earlier 1930 version of the work which is even more infrequently given an airing than the inflated 1947 version that Prokofiev adapted to please the authorities, after getting in trouble with the dark Sixth Symphony. Despite guiltily missing the bombastic coda to the finale from the later version, Gergiev was indeed wise to showcase this more intimate affair. Based on the music for The Prodigal Son that Prokofiev collaborated on with George Balanchine, this earlier incarnation captures the delicate, touching quality of the ballet. The pasted-together nature of the movements was put under less strain here and the effect was crisp and charming, rather than barnstorming.

This was the most convincing performance of the evening, the Mariinsky Orchestra's sound seeming ideally suited. Positive and alert string playing, which was rich and sharp and incisive in turns, supported a brilliantly characterful woodwind section. The pacing seemed perfect in the first movement which didn’t seem a bar too long. The slow movement, based on the touching moment in the ballet when the prodigal son returns and is forgiven, was beautifully poised. In the finale, the tension was ratcheted up appropriately only to be brusquely brushed aside in the short, pre-Stalin coda.

The Violin Concerto no. 2 in G minor earned a technically spot on performance by Kristóf Baráti. This popular work is one of the mainstays of 20th-century repertoire. Many violinists have taken on the challenges it poses, most notably how to characterise the exposed solo writing. No other work needs more attention to the detail of the quick-fire moods presented. This is where Baráti tripped up. He was virtually note perfect, but throughout appeared to lack any real feeling for the wit and pungency in the piece. Occasionally he found something more communicative in the long melodic lines of the slow movement, but overall the performance seemed to drag. This was not helped by the slow tempi chosen throughout. The Mariinsky Orchestra did all it could to find the heart of the piece and there was some excellent pianissimo moments at the beginning of the slow movement, but this was a disappointing performance of a great work.

There were also reservations about the performance of the Fifth Symphony that rounded off the evening. When the first great tune appears the Mariinsky strings seemed to visibly breathe a sigh of relief. But the opening movement, though impressively played, didn’t have the impact that it should. This was largely to do with the grading of climaxes. Gergiev seemed to allow the orchestra to pull out the stops too early and in the final great peroration pulled them back, missing out on one of the great spine-tingling moments in 20th-century symphonic music. Instead, he seemed to shift the emphasis to the scherzo that followed, which was spiky and perfectly shaped. The slow movement emphasised the more lyrical flow of the piece, but somehow missed out on the harsh tragedy that lies near the surface. The finale was again lacking in bite, with lyrical sections dominating and tense geniality muted. Only in the final climax did you feel everyone connecting with the spirit of the piece and creating a stunning end to a problematic performance.