The final orchestral performance of this year’s Gergiev festival saw the city of Rotterdam play host to St. Peterburg’s Mariinsky Orchestra. Together with their principal conductor Valery Gergiev they performed a thrilling programme of music by De Falla, Lyadov, Richard Strauss, Berg and Shostakovich. This year’s theme, the First World War, was made audible in several of this pieces, not least of all the pieces from Berg’s Wozzeck and Shostakovich’s Symphony no.12 in D minor.

Valery Gergiev © Valentin Baranovsky
Valery Gergiev
© Valentin Baranovsky

The evening kicked off, however, with De Falla’s ‘Danza ritual del fuego’ from El amor brujo. This 1915 piece was given an energetic and dynamic reading by Gergiev and the Mariinsky. It was fast-paced but precise, and started the evening off well, with the audience on the edge of their seats. Lyadov’s From the Apocalypse was an entirely different piece. From the outset it feels sinister, an atmosphere that lasts throughout the piece. As opposed to the relentless energy of De Falla’s piece, in From the Apocalypse the Mariinsky had to both be more subdued and more ferocious – the climaxes of the piece are breath-taking, in particular towards the end when one of the flutes imitates a scream so convincingly that I could not help but get chills.

Richard Strauss’s Symphonic Fantasy from “Die Frau Ohne Schatten” was somewhat less memorable. The strings of the Mariinsky, so convincing the rest of the evening, were not able to achieve warmth in their playing, and the entire orchestra took a little while to really get going. Thankfully this did not last long, as soon Gergiev led the orchestra to a more convincing performance – though the music itself impressed much less than the other pieces this evening.

The Drei Bruchstücke (Three Fragments) from Wozzeck will never really represent the intensity of the opera itself. However, as stand-alone musical pieces they are still hugely engaging, and soprano Angela Denoke made a debut at the Gergiev Festival that will not be forgotten soon. From the slightly maniacal march at the beginning of the first Brustücke (Act 1, scene 2-3), to the absolutely stunning second Fragment (Act 3, scene 1), the orchestra and Angela Denoke were spot on, with a beautiful balance consistently being struck between orchestra and soloist. The Third Fragment was equally impressive and I am sure I wasn’t the only person in the room left wanting to hear more Wozzeck. Though, with the final piece on the programme being Shostakovich’s momentous Symphony no. 12, we were treated to a rousing finale. 

Shostakovich was asked to compose a symphony to commemorate Lenin and the 1917 revolution by the Communist Party Congress in 1961. The ambiguity that we find in so many of his works, not least of all the Ninth Symphony, is ever-present in the Twelfth. It is a programmatic work, however, with the movements reflecting events; “Revolutionary Petrograd”, “Razliv”, “Aurora” and “The Dawn of Humanity”. This is most obvious in the powerful third movement; it was from the ship Aurora that shots were fired at the Winter Palace – signalling the start of the October Revolution. These brass and in particular percussion in this movements reflect these shots loud and clear, making for an exhilarating listen.

Despite this exhilaration, it is somewhat rare to witness a performance of Shostakovich’s Twelfth Symphony, although it is certainly not a piece unfamiliar to the Mariinsky Orchestra and Valery Gergiev. Their championing of this piece was thoroughly convincing tonight as well, they gave a performance that is as good as one could wish for. From the outset Gergiev set the bar high, with a fast pace and complete immersion of the musicians. The brass and percussion sections of the orchestra were flawless throughout, while the woodwinds had some absolutely outstanding players, especially the first clarinettist and oboist. An encore of the prelude to Wagner’s Lohegrin made for a more than satisfying ending to an evening, and left me looking forward to next year’s Gergiev Festival.