Just by taking a look at the list of conductor Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra’s upcoming concerts, it becomes evident that their schedule has been nothing less than hectic recently. Moving from city to city every few days, each time performing a different programme, such a busy calendar would prove challenging to anyone. But Gergiev and his orchestra don’t usually run low on stamina, which made it possible for them to fit a concert in Florence in between several other European venues. As they gradually filled the stage of the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the conductor on the same level as the musicians, one could sense the seasoned practicality of a group of artists that have been working together for a long time.

Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra
© Michele Monasta

For the occasion the programme featured some 20th-century classics, namely a suite from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin and Stravinsky’s Petrushka. What on paper seemed like an outlook on modern ballet repertoire rather proved to be an unexpected rendition of some well-known orchestral works.

To open, four excerpts were singled out from Prokofiev’s score, including the famous Dance of the Knights. The sections were not in chronological order, therefore constituting an independent symphonic work not reproducing the ballet's narrative. From the very start it was clear that Gergiev’s interpretation would not be unnecessarily polished or suave. If the risk with playing repertoire is to indulge in self-satisfied, overly smooth performances, the Russian conductor made sure to avoid any sort of complacency, obtaining from the orchestra a sound that was rich but blunt at the same time. His fast tempi, however, sometimes prevented a spotless performance. 

Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra
© Michele Monasta

In a way, this also applied to The Miraculous Mandarin. Bartók’s tumultuous score calls for a vehemence that is to be achieved by maintaining a strong hold on the orchestra. Losing control over its balances and mechanisms would inevitably lead to a confusing rendition. While this was not the case with Gergiev, the quick pace of some passages did seem to test the clarity of some orchestral sections, resulting in an occasional fogginess that blurred Bartók’s timbral effects. At times, when the score’s texture thickened, one wondered if the orchestra could have used a sharper, more directional sound. Still, moments of instrumental rarefaction were carried out masterfully, and such sporadic haste did not jeopardise a valuable interpretation.

After a short interval the concert arrived at its final work. Gergiev’s and the Mariinsky’s take on Petrushka is well known: they have recorded it more than once. But no studio recording can quite match a successful live performance. Letting go of all previous haste, the Russians gave an excellent rendition of Stravinsky’s ballet. Once acclimatised to the Mariinsky’s distinctive sound, mellow and dense rather than crystalline, one could not help but admire their control over Stravinsky’s stratified, variegated but tight idiom. Gergiev conducted his musicians with superb pace, guiding the audience through the sardonic atmosphere of an old Russian fair. If we are meant to get lost in the score’s kaleidoscopic ambiance, it is certainly preferable to do so with Gergiev showing us round as guide. 

Valery Gergiev receives the Keys to the City of Florence
© Michele Monasta

It is no wonder, then, that the evening proved to be a great success, Gergiev sealing his bond with the city at the end of the concert, when he was awarded the Key to the City by Florence's mayor, Dario Nardella. 

****1