Everybody loves a story: we grow up at our mother’s knee with tales of the supernatural and at journey’s end we witness – supposedly in a flash – the entire narrative of a life lived. In between we are gripped by one fantastical plot of a TV drama series after the other, the more improbable and implausible, the better. If you seek crazy combinations of characters and settings from the world of make-believe, look no further than the skazki (fairy-tales) and folklore of Old Mother Russia. Throughout the 19th century and beyond Russian composers have repeatedly drawn on such narrative content for inspiration.

Valery Gergiev © Alberto Venzago
Valery Gergiev
© Alberto Venzago

Rimsky-Korsakov based his opera about Tsar Saltan (the actual title is much, much longer and the plot one of the most complicated in all opera) on one of Pushkin’s skazki. The suite played by the Mariinsky Orchestra and conducted by Valery Gergiev in the second of their two Cadogan Hall concerts normally consists of three kaleidoscopic interludes. Here the opera’s most famous piece, “The Flight of the Bumblebee”, was inserted as a bonus before the final passage, which like the two preceding ones kicked off with a vividly played trumpet fanfare. This stylistic device of repetition was one aspect of technique which Rimsky’s pupil Stravinsky put to good use in the spread chords that begin each of the four movements that make up his Violin Concerto. In its glittering parade of orchestral textures the Rimsky suite is also the perfect template for what came a decade later in Stravinsky’s first major ballet, The Firebird. The performance of the suite was like opening a jewel-case packed with brightly coloured precious stones: each glistened and shone with the delight of individual discovery.

Russian woodwinds are often more characterful and less homogeneous than their western counterparts: the flutes had a peppermint-like clarity, the oboes hints of salted herring and pickled cucumber, and the clarinets and bassoons the satisfying richness of pirozhki (baked fruit buns). Had Rimsky lived quite a bit longer, I reckon he’d have given Korngold a run for his money in creating sumptuous and atmospheric film scores. If authenticity is what you crave in this kind of music, Gergiev and his players certainly fulfilled the brief.

Magic birds which are the agents of redemption (in Tsar Saltan it is a swan) enable the composer in question to take the listener on a flight of fancy and carry the narrative line. Gergiev chose to conduct the last of the three separate suites Stravinsky created from his original ballet, the 1945 compilation consisting of eleven items. Even with a platform full of additional players, ensemble was tight. With his standard accoutrement, a toothpick, and his two fluttering hands, Gergiev often achieved a chamber-like delicacy in this understated reading of the Firebird, eschewing power and volume in favour of subtlety and intimacy. At the very end of the concert we remained in the spooky realm of the supernatural in the orchestral encore, Lyadov’s creation of the witch Baba-Yaga.

I have to confess that I was much more impressed with the two encores played by Kristóf Baráti, the fourth movement of Ysaÿe’s second sonata and the Largo movement from Bach’s third violin sonata, than with his playing of Stravinsky’s concerto. Prokofiev’s withering comment on the work, “Bach with smallpox”, is surely unjustified, since in the right hands this is a piece which can sparkle and crackle with rhythmic complexity and a sense of fun. For all his fine intonation, graceful bowing and warmly expressive playing, Baráti didn’t make me think he really owned this concerto. He remained glued to his music-stand, with hardly a glance in Gergiev’s direction and no eye contact with the other players. Given that this neoclassical work harks back to the tradition of the concerto grosso, this was especially surprising. He was undoubtedly at his best in the third movement (Aria II), where the elements of soaring lyricism were effectively handled.

The concert had opened with Stravinsky’s Concerto in D, an excellent vehicle for displaying the dark, earthy colours of the twenty string players and their careful attention to rhythmic details, even if this 1946 commission lacks the sheer inventiveness and exuberance of Bartok’s Divertimento, written seven years earlier.

Some relationships between orchestras and their chief conductors exhaust themselves pretty quickly; the average length of tenure is around ten years. There are, however, notable exceptions: Mravinsky stayed with the Leningrad Philharmonic for an amazing half-century, Karajan was in charge of the Berlin Philharmonic for 34 years and Barbirolli’s reign with the Hallé commenced in 1943 and ended only at his death in 1970. Valery Gergiev has now been with the Mariinsky Orchestra for almost 30 years and the love affair shows no sign of abating. May their combined musicianship, especially in the Russian repertoire, continue to flourish.