Punctuality isn’t exactly Valery Gergiev’s strength. Years of experience teach you never to expect a Mariinsky Orchestra concert to begin on time, but when the audience isn’t even admitted until ten minutes before the scheduled start, you know you’re in for a very long night. When Mao Fujita, soloist in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, left the Cadogan Hall stage at 21:50, a fair audience exodus took place before the suite from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh that closed Gergiev’s programme – a shame, because it contained by far the best music-making of the night.

Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra
© Luke Toddfrey

The orchestra seemed to have a dual focus in its two Cadogan Hall concerts this week: marking the Berlioz 150 anniversary and promoting some of the winners of this years International Tchaikovsky Competition. Despite a series with the London Symphony Orchestra, Berlioz is not necessarily a Gergiev speciality. He is perhaps more suited to the volatility of the Symphonie fantastique (on Monday evening) than the poetry of Roméo et Juliette, although it’s possible his whiplash tempi were an effort to make up for lost time.

Gruff strings set the tense mood in Verona in the first of five orchestral excerpts plucked from the French composer’s symphonie dramatique. Stentorian brass gleamed under Gergiev’s fluttery beat, trombones properly imposing. Our speed read through Shakespeare continued with “Romeo alone” (not for long...) before we were whisked for a vigorous spin around the ballroom with the sort of ferocity you’d expect of something by Shostakovich. The Love Scene was restless, Romeo possibly suffering from first night nerves with a few fluffed woodwind entries. Ironically, the Queen Mab Scherzo – which really does need to tumble and skitter at pace – galumphed along rather clumsily. Go figure.

As Co-Chair of the Organising Committee, Gergiev is rightly proud of the International Tchaikovsky Competition and is certainly giving opportunities to the winners on this mini-tour. On Monday, Matvey Demin (Woodwind First Prize) was given the solo spotlight, whilst here Mao Fujita (Piano Second Prize) tackled Tchaikovsky. But the invitation didn’t just extend to soloists: leader Olga Volkova was a contestant this year; principal flautist, the superb Sofia Viland, won 8th prize; principal clarinet, Nikita Vaganov, won 5th).

Mao Fujita and the Mariinsky Orchestra
© Luke Toddfrey

Fujita, fresh-faced with a beaming smile, lavished plenty of poetry on Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, teasing out paragraphs with great tenderness, fingers rippling across the keyboard as if stroking a kitten. The piano duly purred. There was impish humour too and nimble articulation in a pacy account of the finale, although his thunderous gallop into the coda felt too volatile.

The concert’s best came late and last. With its mix of fairytale, pantheistic and Christian symbolism, Rimsky’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh is often referred to as “the Russian Parsifal”, and Gergiev drew on all his mystical wizardry to conjure up woodlands and birdcalls in the opening Hymn to Nature. The Wedding Procession glittered in percussion and string balalaika imitations while the Battle of Kerzhenets ramped up the brass decibels. This is by far what Gergiev does best. I just hope these busy Mariinsky musicians are paid overtime.