There are many incarnations of the Mariinsky Orchestra. On any day, it can be found simultaneously in its three St Petersburg venues. Yesterday evening, for example, it played Les Noces and Firebird for the ballet in its main theatre, Lohengrin (under Nikolaj Znaider) in Mariinsky II and a concert of French repertoire in its Concert Hall. Meanwhile, a fourth Mariinsky Orchestra – under indefatigable music director Valery Gergiev – took to the Cadogan Hall stage in London for the first of two colourful programmes pairing Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov with his pupil, Igor Stravinsky. That must approach 400 musicians in action!

Valery Gergiev © Valentin Baranovsky
Valery Gergiev
© Valentin Baranovsky

Given the option, perhaps the younger players are more game for undertaking a lightning quick UK tour – they can't all share Gergiev's energy, surely – for this looked the most youthful Mariinsky Orchestra I've seen. Apart from Gergiev's grizzled mane, there was hardly a grey hair on the stage. The results, even in a work as hackneyed as Scheherazade, were vibrant, without a hint of routine to any of the playing.

Rimsky-Korsakov framed the programme, starting with the suite from his final opera, The Golden Cockerel. Trumpets often come a cropper in the opening crow but no fear of that here, the Mariinsky brass on crisp, incisive form. Clarinets traded sinuous curlicues as the Queen of Shemakha's theme unfurled before the hapless Tsar Dodon bumbled off to the battlefield, Gergiev keeping his jaunty march on the move. Perky oboe and pizzicato strings hypnotised as the Queen persuaded Dodon to dance. The Tsar eventually returned to his kingdom in great pomp with Shemakha as his bride but swiftly met his doom, vigorously pecked to death by the cockerel, Gergiev executing the cataclysmic blow.

Stravinsky studied with Rimsky from 1902 until the older composer's death in 1908. Rimsky's influence is most felt in terms of Stravinsky's orchestration in works such as The Firebird (heard in Monday's programme) and his Op.1, the Symphony in E flat major. However, Gergiev chose another Symphony – in C – for this concert, a neoclassical work completed in 1940. “All notes gravitate toward a single note,” the composer remarked. “Thus this symphony will be neither a symphony in C major nor a symphony in C minor but simply a symphony in C.” Gergiev – eyes glued to the score – led a clean, angular account, with incredible ensemble given his approximate baton technique. Knotty oboe lines wound their way around the Larghetto concertante. Dusky bassoons and baleful trombones led to the bustling finale.

Rimsky's most popular work remains Scheherazade, a work I've heard Gergiev conduct several times. There were familiar Gergiev traits, such as eliding from the first movement straight into the second without pause for breath. Indeed, he virtually segued the whole suite, banishing audience coughs almost entirely (although his own familiar exhalations could be heard from the back of the Gallery). Stanislav Izmailov's sweet tone seduced as the storyteller, Scheherazade. Unmistakably Russian brass bit into the Sultan's opening pronouncement, while the young Mariinsky bears made sure Sinbad's ship surged impetuously. The Tale of the Kalender Prince was begun by an especially mournful bassoon, but the great clarinet solo was given with plenty of dramatic rubato, Gergiev allowing his principal free rein. Crystalline flute and demonstrative harp shaped the narrative well. The Young Prince and the Young Princess were painted by lush, languorous strings before a pulsating tempest of a finale, the orchestra rampaging across the score and onto the rocks with gleeful alacrity.

For an encore, Gergiev turned to another of Rimsky's pupils, Anatoly Lydov, whose short tone poem The Enchanted Lake, all rippling strings, birdcalls and forest murmurs, beguiled the ear.