Drawn primarily from first-rate St Petersburg musicians, the Mariinsky boasts one of Russia’s oldest and most established orchestras. Fortunately, given its technical excellence and richly moderated sound, the orchestra has not shied from performing contemporary works since the post-war period.

Leonidas Kavakos © Marco Borggreve
Leonidas Kavakos
© Marco Borggreve

In its concert at the Tonhalle, the Mariinsky first paid tribute to the Swiss modern. Dieter Ammann’s stunning Turn is the centrepiece of a tryptich for orchestra that the Lucerne Festival commissioned in 2010 and premiered that same year under Pierre Boulez. I remember hearing the piece then, with its density of voices − a “conscious overloading”, Ammann later said − that gave what he called “great significance to the vertical”. Marked by the unexpected twists and turnings (hence the title) whose tone passages built up a dense fabric of images, the content was repeatedly subject to abrupt shifts. It grew, then was diminished, then grew again much like Odysseus’s Penelope wove by day, then unravelled her work every night to avoid suitors before her husband’s return. Allusions aside, the work spoke to me viscerally, and Ammann’s ghostly last line of fading twin clarinets hovered over me long after I left the hall. 

While Boulez had given us something of the ethereal − even contemplative − in Turn, Valery Gergiev’s dynamic was a different one; he infused the piece with an unbridled, almost proletariat strength. Boulez’s cosmic stillness gave way to tremendous implosions, and a dynamic that shook off anything the listener might be finding too comfortable. Being more physical than cerebral, the Mariinsky nicely underscored the power of various interpretations and new invention nonetheless.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor was written in 1947/48, but kept ferreted away in a desk drawer until – after the fall of Stalin – the strict censorship of works other than those that served the regime’s ideology was lifted. As soloist, the superb Leonidas Kavakos had modest stage presence at first; dressed in a navy Cossack-like jacket, his unwieldy hair often in the way, he looked like a figure from a Sergei Eisenstein film. Granted, his technical virtuosity was close to superhuman from the start, but he stood through the first measures of the Nocturne’s precious violin line with hardly any animation, almost as if starting from behind a glass barrier.

Some five or six minutes into the piece, however, his work began to draw up the “painful lyricism” that has been called this concerto’s marker. By the second movement Scherzo, often cited as “demonic”, his interpretation went into even darker realms, his jagged violin alternating with the birdlike flute, sometimes even as witness to jazz-age syncopation. In the Passacaglia, perhaps the most famous movement of the concerto, the bassoons – one of them a throaty contra – reinstated the melody and drew in Jewish folklore fragments. The woodwinds underscored the violin’s fireworks, which mellowed by the end into a kind of pleading human conversation. Indeed, with the greatest variety of tonal hues here, Kavakos explored profound emotional depths before the long cadenza that lead seamlessly into the Burlesque finale.

All the while, Gergiev struck the score with all his muscle power, his almost ruthless pursuit of perfection evidenced by a firmly set jaw. The tails of his tuxedo flung out behind him as he stooped and lunged, his fingers fluttering at the musicians like the tendrils of an aquatic plant. And against this rich backdrop, Kavakos’ sensitive bow made for artistry of the first order; his flawless technique driven by what seemed an almost otherworldly force. I don’t believe there could be a more compelling performance of the work.

After the break, and conducting Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Gergiev worked without a score, abandoning the matchstick he had substituted for a baton earlier. Arguably the most popular of Mussorgsky’s work, Pictures is a suite of short pieces that describe various paintings the composer saw at a memorial exhibition of works by his friend Viktor Hartmann, who died tragically at age 39. Originally composed for piano, the work premiered in 1874, and was orchestrated by Maurice Ravel in 1910.

Since the artist’s pictures recorded his travels, they vary in mood, colour and key accordingly, but even the humble visitor is given credence: the “Promenade” plays on the sauntering rhythm of a pace through the gallery, here among scenes of tumbling children, an old castle, or a bustling marketplace, for example. Particularly generous to the horns and woodwinds, Pictures gives the whole orchestra a vibrant cinematographic hand that makes the work even easier to love. And in the Mariinsky’s exuberance over the final “The Great Gate of Kiev", cymbals were clashed and turned skyward as if marking the end of an Olympic sporting event. In short: here was pomp, hard work and true gleam.