A certain fierceness beholds the persona of Valery Gergiev. A man humble of smiles, Gergiev also maintains a superhuman schedule. Including the first of the two London concerts dedicated to the 150th anniversary of the death of Berlioz, Gergiev has performed six concerts over the past week in four cities, covering music from Beethoven and Schubert to Shostakovich, Prokofiev to Dutilleux, Berlioz to Rimsky-Korsakov. If the semantics of fierceness should also imply the presence of energy, such implication was realised all the more vividly in the evening, as Gergiev and his Mariinsky Orchestra delivered a performance full of vitality and determination.

Matvey Demin
© Matvey Demin

On paper, the first half of the concert can easily be seen as a showcase of orchestral charm with a sizzle, an orchestral bonbon. Yet instead of conceiving the suite from Mlada as a series of innocently colourful pictures from a fairy-tale, Gergiev drove the orchestra as if to foreshadow the weirder elements of the rest of the original opera, further building up a real symphonic momentum. A nervous excitement permeated throughout the earlier movements, and the exotic repose in the Indian Dance was met with a majestically weighty Procession of the Nobles.

Anticipation was high for soloist Matvey Demin, flautist winner of the woodwind category in the 2019 International Tchaikovsky Competition. One could see how the clear and bright sonority of Demin’s flute, aided by his confident stage personality, won him such prestige. The Ibert concerto, a work brimming with expressive and virtuosic details, became a work of sparkling ease in his hands. The orchestra may have marginally overshot their enthusiasm, veiling Demin in parts of the first movement. Also, the second movement could have breathed more to further yield both the score’s and Demin’s lyrical potentials. Yet Demin’s musicality, to effortlessly swing between playfulness and sobriety, exhibited especially fruitfully in the Allegro scherzando, was a thing to remember.

The following Fantasie Brillante, a classic showpiece by François Borne in the sense that catchy melodies (from Bizet’s Carmen) are played with an added virtuosic dimension, was, like the Rimsky-Korsakov, surprisingly serious in intent. Neither Demin nor Gergiev overplayed the obvious allures of the Habanera, underscoring Demin’s musical integrity as opposed to relying on what could have been a crowd-pleasing theatricality. In what was a marked UK debut for Demin, British audiences undoubtedly will be looking forward to hear more from this Russian promise.

Some stereotypes reflect reality, and in the first half of the programme, the Mariinsky Orchestra were somewhat prone to displaying the oft-cited “Russian” sound – metallic woodwinds and strings, protruding brass, and propulsive tempos. Yet simultaneously, not all stereotypes necessarily reflect reality. In Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique, an unmistakable tenderness and orchestral polish were introduced, with fang and distinctive rhythmic punctuations never precluded. Where Un Bal exuded natural charm, the Scène aux champs unfolded its pastoralism unerringly to its climax, the latter movement finding Gergiev particularly animated. He kept the ghoulish and the frantic from overflowing in the macabre Marche au supplice and Songe d'une nuit du sabbat by keeping a steady tempo, a “cool” performance. Yet as the orchestra marched into the concluding bars with determined intensity, both Berlioz and Gergiev seemed like men on a mission.