On Tuesday night, St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Orchestra and their ubiquitous music director Valery Gergiev closed a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall. Part of the hall’s fall “Tchaikovsky in St. Petersburg” festival, the program included works by Prokofiev and Shostakovich as well as Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

Daniil Trifonov with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra © Valentin Baranovsky
Daniil Trifonov with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra
© Valentin Baranovsky

The orchestra has maintained an edgy sound that is quite different from Western orchestras, with raw strings, hollow tone in the woodwinds and bright brass sound. The program opened with three excerpts from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet. It was not an auspicious start. The first section, depicting Friar Laurence, requires a delicacy and transparency that eluded the orchestra and exposed coordination problems. But as the orchestra crescendoed into the more animated “Masks” and “Montagues and the Capulets,” they showed that while not always subtle, they can be gripping. Snappy rhythms and quick tempos made it an intense account. They can also be astonishingly loud.

The soloist for the Tchaikovsky was 20-year old Russian Daniil Trifonov, appropriately enough the winner of the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition. (In 1966, Van Cliburn won the same competition with the same concerto Trifonov performed in this concert.) Based on this impetuous and accomplished performance, he has a big career ahead of him. Armed with the flamboyant hair and crouching posture of any self-respecting piano virtuoso, he showed an authority beyond his years from the start, matching the orchestra’s familiar crashing opening in volume and seeming to lead Gergiev and the orchestra with sensitive rubato. The many octave passages and other terrors of the work seemed to pose no challenge to him, and textures were beautifully balanced and clear. Unlike many young virtuosos, the goals seemed to be musical rather than showmanship.

The second movement was less of a success largely due to the orchestra, which sounded shaky in the chamber-music-like passages and suffered from unfocused tone in the winds. Trifonov and Gergiev took the finale at quite a clip, and while some of the radical tempo shifts didn’t quite feel natural, they did keep the audience on their toes. Trifonov was warmly received and played two encores. Chopin’s Grand valse brillante showed that he is also a natural Chopin player (and indeed he has been placed in that competition as well), while Liszt’s transcription of Paganini’s “La Campanella” proved that he can put on a technical show when the moment is right.

The second half of the concert consisted of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1. It was written when the composer was the same age as Trifonov--twenty. Like Trifonov, the composer seems to delight in his own preternatural ability, but likewise within the bounds of substantive musicianship. After a somewhat sloppy opening, the orchestra rallied to their best playing of the night, particularly in the loud and rattling sections of the first two movements. The following slow movement showed that they are capable of subtlety, with a broad palette of colors and more impressive playing from the strings. The last movement found them again in their fortissimo element, the brass blaring through the coda.

Gergiev conducted without a podium, and his baton-less technique is a fascinating puzzle to watch. It’s clear that his musicians understand his fluttery, rhythmically vague gestures (reputedly known by some orchestras as “stroking the cat”), but they resemble no other conductor. He and the orchestra are on the tail end of a punishingly long and intense tour, and the uneven playing of this concert may have been simply due to exhaustion. But the orchestra proved that even when they are tired, they still are exciting.