The traveling Valery Gergiev circus came to Prague on Friday with barely a whisper of the protests that have dogged the superstar Russian conductor in recent months. As it turned out, however, there are other ways to make a statement.

It was Gergiev who proposed the program to the Czech Philharmonic: the suite from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Without the burden of heavy preparation that a Shostakovich or Prokofiev symphony would require, it seemed tailor-made for Gergiev’s schedule: arrive in Prague Friday morning, do one quick rehearsal before the concert, then leave with the orchestra the following morning to perform the same program at the Ravenna Festival on Saturday night.

Valery Gergiev © Valentin Baranovsky
Valery Gergiev
© Valentin Baranovsky

The quick stop made what Gergiev did with the orchestra even more impressive. Quite simply, the Czech Philharmonic sounded more Russian than Czech, riding dramatic swells of sound, bursting with energy, passion and even a touch of nationalist pride. Pictures in particular – reportedly the only piece he worked on in rehearsal – was deeply felt, a surging river flowing straight from the motherland. Whatever one thinks of the results, Gergiev’s understanding of an orchestra and ability to bend it to his will is without peer.

He does not care much for details. They get in the way of the irresistible momentum he creates with the music, which he conjures as a fast-paced force of nature that sweeps away listeners, pulling them inexorably along – not unlike Gergiev himself. Typically, he does not even use a baton, forcing the players to listen to and follow each other rather than a waving stick. When he needs more precision, he will use a toothpick, as he did in the Rachmaninov concerto.

The Swan Lake Suite set the tone for the evening – uptempo, sometimes dizzyingly so, with driving energy and a big sound that Gergiev could rein in with surprising discipline and finesse. After racing through the first three movements, he gave concertmaster Josef Špaček and harpist Jana Boušková the space to craft lovely solos and a duet in the second “Scene”, providing soft, delicate backing in the orchestra. If the suite did not sound much like a ballet, it nonetheless had a transportive effect, evoking a more exotic time and place.

The concerto had a thrown-together feel, with Gergiev not making many adjustments to accommodate the soloist, Yeol Eum Son. A laureate of the Van Cliburn and Tchaikovsky competitions, she has superb technical skills but perhaps not the dramatic tone and dark passion that mark the best Rachmaninov. To be fair, it was hard to tell, as the big sound of the orchestra drowned her out much of the time. But what a sound – more like a tone poem in the second movement, and never less clichéd playing the familiar melody of the third.

Son returned for an encore that momentarily baffled everyone in the hall. It turned out to be a concert étude by the Ukrainian composer Nikolai Kapustin, a discovery that set off animated conversations during intermission: Was it played as a subtle memorial or protest? Son didn’t announce the composer and has the piece in her repertoire, so it was more likely a display of her stylistic range and sparkling technique than a political comment. But with the atmosphere around Gergiev so charged these days, everything has a potential subtext.

Pictures was very different from the piece one normally hears in concert. Gergiev treated it as one continuous composition rather than a series of vignettes, giving it an organic feel and dramatically different contours. Broad, flat horns, oddly colored woodwinds and highly original phrasing made some parts almost unrecognizable. The “Limoges” was a riot of flash and dazzle that sounded like the orchestra had suddenly switch to fast-forward, pivoting abruptly to a sudden plunge into the brooding, dissonant depths of the “Catacombs”. By the time this version of Pictures arrived at the “Great Gates of Kiev", it was another piece entirely, a gathering of dark, understated power and bright whirlwinds that coalesced into an indomitable, ringing finale.

In all, a hastily assembled but thrilling and instructive evening. One local critic dismissed it as a dress rehearsal for Ravenna, and there was some truth to that. But Gergiev is able to dictate his own terms wherever he goes, and even a brief encounter with his formidable talent and unique approach is enough to show why.