Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky forces have been frequent guests in Brussels over the last 25 years: quite an extraordinary feat in itself, if you think about it. Several visits were memorable events, yet this all-Russian programme ranks as one of the finest I heard them perform in a long time and easily tops my list of favourite concerts this year. An absolutely thrilling journey with privileged guides, encompassing the mysterious fantasy world of Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky’s neoclassical outings as well as Tchaikovsky’s crushing emotional outpourings. Familiar repertoire it may be, but it emerged here with astonishing freshness and impact, reconfirming that old cliché that it takes Russians to play their own music.

Valery Gergiev © Alexander Shapunov
Valery Gergiev
© Alexander Shapunov

Gergiev's habitual tardiness seems to reflect on his orchestra as well, as for whatever reason this time they only appeared on stage a long twelve minutes after the warning bell. But if they take this extra time to be fully prepared, as they obviously were tonight, then I’m quite happy to wait a bit longer. The Mariinsky players can make you believe music they have been performing for decades has just been discovered. True, orchestral members change, but when at their best, routine seems an alien notion to them.

The striking trumpet fanfare, lively percussion and colourful woodwinds opening Rimsky-Korsakov's Suite from The Tale of Tsar Saltan immediately created the proper theatrical atmosphere. It was a magical experience as if, out of nowhere, a stage is set and suddenly you are in the midst of an ancient Russian fairytale. It’s partly the evocative power of the music of course, but also the quality of the playing here, leaving no doubt both Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra were in great spirits. Soon a darker edge appeared as well, which would become a recurrent feature of the evening. For the depiction of Rimsky-Korsakov’s beloved sea in the second part, brass and lower strings evoked a threatening atmosphere, perfectly justifiable in its theatrical context and soon dispelled by the playful brilliance of the Three Wonders section, which would have suited the exotic Alexander Korda movies of the 1940s.

Stravinsky’s Symphony in C may be less familiar fare for the Mariinsky, yet Gergiev secured a magnificent performance, brimming with energy and characterised by brisk tempi, vivid rhythms and a spiky delivery, carefully balancing momentum with weight. A sombre undercurrent appeared time and again, nowhere more so as in the extraordinary Largo chorale combining bassoons, horns and trombones. All sections played with exemplary commitment, with special mention of the fantastic woodwinds, not least the elegant oboe of Pavel Kundyanok in the Larghetto concertante.

Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique was given a knockout performance. Deeply moving and often terrifyingly dark, Gergiev and the Mariinsky took us on a devastating ride towards the abyss which eventually left me grabbing for a rope. The impact of this reading was achieved by combining an incredible but impeccably balanced amount of orchestral detail and colour – offering a surgical view of Tchaikovsky’s genius as orchestrator – with well-judged pacing and highly effective rubato and dynamics. This was an approach which left many other commendable attempts sounding merely one-dimensional. Gergiev’s tempi were mostly swift if never breathless or uncomfortable, but pulled towards the Adagio lamentoso, the emotional core of the symphony.

The Mariinsky Orchestra was, in this respect, ideal, stuck as one to Gergiev’s fluttering hands, nary a crack in the ensemble. Conducting the symphony from memory (unlike the previous works in this concert) Gergiev obtained fabulous playing from all groups. Passages of great beauty and heartfelt tenderness, like the big Andante theme in the first movement, coalesced with strokes of unsettling, cataclysmic impact, as the hellbound development section of that same movement, or indeed the closing Adagio lamentoso, anticipating the mature symphonies from Shostakovich by some forty years. The dark sonority of the Mariinsky Orchestra was a great asset throughout the evening but here more than ever. Most eerily, perhaps, were those snarling double basses opening and concluding the symphony.

A stunning concert. Five stars.

*****