Valery Gergiev is as ubiquitous as ever. It so happened that during the last week I saw him conducting Tannhäuser at Bayreuth on Sunday and Simon Boccanegra at the Salzburg Festival on Tuesday. On Friday, Gergiev brought “his” Mariinsky Orchestra to the Lucerne Festival. Oddly enough, the names of the musicians on the roster were not included in the performance’s booklet. More, one could recognise in the leader’s chair the unmistakable silhouette of Lorenz Nasturica-Herschcowici, concertmaster of the Munich Philharmonic, the other famed orchestra Gergiev leads.c

Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra
© Manuela Jans | Lucerne Festival

The evening’s music was entirely Russian, the programme traversing a century of the country’s symphonic music in reverse chronological order. Two large works, played so often that they acquired in time all sorts of monikers, were preceded by a lesser-known piece by Rodion Shchedrin. Composed in 1963, his Concerto for Orchestra no. 1 also bears the title Ozornïye Chastushki, a so-called “chastushka” being a popular folk genre composed of a series of quick, witty, irreverent rhymes. The title has been translated into English as either “Naughty Limericks” or “Mischievous Melodies”. It’s a work full of humour and intended cacophonies, starting with brass instruments playing over jazz-evoking bass pizzicatos and rapidly navigating from one motif to the next. With its occasional reminiscences of Shostakovich’s satirical phrases, the work was most of all a vehicle for displaying the virtuosity of the Mariinsky’s players.

The very talented Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov is an artist whose musicality transcends the mere virtuosic prowess. One was expecting him to put the melodious themes and the brilliant transitions that abound in Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto into a new light. The war horse’s first bars, with a softer approach to the bell-tolling sounds and a less Romantically effusive first theme, sounded very promising, but the potential novelty of the approach didn’t sustain itself. The rendition quickly turned into a perfectly “normal” one with all the technical difficulties easily dispatched, but lacking any special sparks. More, the soloist and the ensemble seemed to take parallel paths in navigating the score, especially during the Adagio sostenuto; the level of communication between piano and the members of the orchestra rarely seemed to go beyond just a superficial entente.

Behzod Abduraimov
© Manuela Jans | Lucerne Festival

The high point of the performance came after the interval, when Gergiev drew a perfectly balanced arch across Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony. He shortened the intervals between movements, shaping the opus, despite all its contrasts, into a single, organically-integrated form. Gergiev didn’t seem to care too much about any biographical hints hidden in the score’s fabric, focusing instead on the marvellous musical flow itself. At the same time, the conductor and the Mariinsky Orchestra brought forward a multitude of details – from a reference to Beethoven’s introduction to his “Pathétique” Sonata to the solo clarinet segment in the Allegro molto vivace to the mourning evoking a little chorale in the final movement – in a work that is certainly ingrained in their DNA. The conductor placed eight cellos to his right and six double basses on the other side of the stage, behind the violins, thus amplifying the spatiality of the lower strings’ sound. One beautiful justification for his choice came at the very end of the Pathétique, with the cellos and basses embarking just themselves into a resigned descent into silence that Gergiev tried to prolong as long as an impatient public let him.