June 17th is Stravinsky’s 135th birthday and St Petersburg celebrated its favourite musical son with a pair of concerts gathering music from different times in his career, mixing famous pieces with the less familiar. The Mariinsky Concert Hall is celebrating its own tenth birthday at this White Nights Festival, with its woodblock-lined walls providing the perfect acoustic to hear the detail of Stravinsky’s complex scoring.

Mariinsky Concert Hall © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Mariinsky Concert Hall
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

The showpiece was the earliest work, written in 1910: The Firebird. From the very first notes, there was a sense of something special, with the growl of cellos and basses as Stravinsky builds the darkness of Kashchei’s Enchanted Garden (how, I mused, can one actually build darkness?). The woodwind shed bright light on our imagined landscape, while reinforcing what we had been hearing all evening: the Mariinsky Orchestra has an extraordinary collection of wind players. Every phrase, every note was not just played perfectly in time and perfectly in tune, there was also a subtle shape to each note that changed it from being an interjection over a string-led story into being a shaft of light, a splash of colour daubed onto the canvas.

As often, on the podium, Valery Gergiev didn’t seem to be actually doing much; he was a sort of benign presence doing little more than fine tuning, with the fluttering fingers of a left hand and the trademark toothpick baton in his right. But however it’s done, the togetherness of the players is superb: when there’s a lilt, their music sways as one; the ebb and flow is pin sharp, when they scurry, they are scurrying precisely in time. In Kashchei’s garden, the string swell imparts a sultry summer heat. When the crash of cymbals announces the Infernal Dance, all hell does indeed let loose; the perfect timing of the bass drum thump at the end of a fast-rising arpeggio adds to the thrill. And at the relatively quiet end, when the storm and fury has subsided, Stravinsky still delivers a knock-out chord progression in the brass to leave you in utter contentment.

Written in 1931, the Violin Concerto comes well after the point where Stravinsky has built polyrhythms into his writing. It must be incredibly challenging for conductor and orchestra, because for most of its length, there’s an awful lot going on at the same time, with the components generally not in the same rhythm. The first movement has a rather driven, manic character: it’s easy for the soloist to get lost, but Pavel Milyukov stood out clearly above the orchestra, helped notably by wonderful bassoon solo playing by Rodion Tolmachev. The third movement (Aria II) was a lovely and lyrical interlude, played by Milyukov with great purity.

The Symphony in C hails from darker times in 1940, with Stravinsky in exile in the United States and having suffered a series of personal tragedies. Yet these are not betrayed in the neoclassical music, a more good-natured and simpler piece than the more angular Violin Concerto, with the spirit of the dance never far away. The Mariinsky achieved good propulsive drive and, as always in this concert, the wind playing was exceptional, notably the oboe solos of Alexander Levin. And one of the big tests of a great orchestra, keeping perfect control of a tutti pianissimo, was passed with aplomb.

Less successful was the opening work Les Noces, presented here in its original form for four pianos, percussion, choir and SATB soloists. We had no less than seven percussionists on stage and the piano parts are themselves percussive, with the insistent rhythms creating something closer to The Rite of Spring than to any wedding in my conception. With the exception of soprano Irina Vasilieva, soloists were being swamped. I suspect this is a piece that you have to be Russian to appreciate.

Stephan Otto (Soldier), Michelle Chapkevich (Princess) © Mariinsky Theatre
Stephan Otto (Soldier), Michelle Chapkevich (Princess)
© Mariinsky Theatre

Earlier in the afternoon, Ivan Stolbov had led a group of seven of the Mariinsky’s musicians in a fully choreographed performance of A Soldier’s Tale – a quirky, folksy story of the soldier who trades his violin with the devil. The music was played with verve and the story narrated with gusto by Alexander Podmeshalsky, but I hadn't expected the story to be danced by children, and what blew me away was the acting/dancing of Stephan Otto, who portrayed every nuance of the soldier’s personality, from military bluster to romance to the careless card player. I don’t know Stephan’s age, but he can’t be more than eight; never have I seen such an accomplished performer anything like so young. Ballet fans: watch out for him in a decade’s time or so.

Happy birthday, Igor Fyodorovich. Your home city has saluted you in style.


David's press trip was sponsored by the Mariinsky.