On Friday 4 October at the Maison Symphonique in Montreal, Show One Productions in association with l’Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal presented the visiting Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra of St Petersburg conducted by its music director for the last 25 years, Valery Gergiev. During the period, Gergiev has carved out for himself an enviable reputation as an elite opera and symphonic conductor and at present holds several guest conducting positions with orchestras in the UK, the Netherlands and the United States as well as his duties at the Mariinsky.

Valery Gergiev © Alexander Shapunov
Valery Gergiev
© Alexander Shapunov

Gergiev has also masterminded and surveyed the meteoric development of the company over the same period; taking the Mariinsky from the brink of financial ruin to becoming one of the world’s foremost opera and ballet companies, with its own record label. Both companies and the orchestra have recently moved into a spanking-new and spectacularly beautiful, state-of-the-art performing facility. Friday’s concert featured the orchestra on Canadian soil in a program of works by Sergei Rachmaninov.

From the opening and eerily mysterious chords of Rachmaninov’s early work The Rock, Op. 7, two things were abundantly clear. First, the musical quality of the orchestra is not only grandly impressive but undeniable. Gergiev has fashioned a unit of admirable flexibility and breathtaking unity, an ensemble that blends effortless and boundless power with a lyrical and haunting musicality. Second, in a time of cosmopolitan and generic opaqueness, this ensemble has retained its links with its glorious past in displaying traditional values and a distinctly Russian voice but in a resolutely modern context.

The Rock, inspired by both Lermontov’s poem and a Chekhov short story, displayed the orchestra’s overall balance and depth of sonority but also its sectional strengths, the horns being especially effective. Gergiev captured the work’s brooding and menacing atmosphere and demonstrated that his ensemble (especially the strings) was capable of displaying a tonal evenness and uniformity as well as a richness of colour and dynamic range rarely (if ever) heard in this concert hall. Especially impressive was how Gergiev and his orchestra revealed the drama then despair contained in the work’s ultimate climax and coda. The orchestra’s qualities and virtues were later brought to bear on an electrically charged performance of Rachmaninov’s last major orchestral work, the Op. 45 Symphonic Dances.

This orchestral triptych was completed in 1940 and as such is often considered somewhat anachronistic, but it appears more a conscious valediction of Rachmaninov’s life as a composer and his honest and unyielding belief in post-romantic esthetics. Its extrovert score contains numerous references to many of the composer’s previous works, and Gergiev played it for all it was worth. He charted this rhythmically varied landscape with his usual galvanizing presence, his forever flickering and fluttering fingers enticing a textured and flowing interpretation from his charges. If the combined woodwinds offered a refined blend of line and nuance in the opening section, the altos brought much expansive warmth and the brass impulsive drive that dominated and underpinned the work’s musical progression. Here, as elsewhere, Gergiev’s visceral internal energy was palpable and remained so in the two encores offered, a sprightly and rhythmically alert Babi Yaga by Liadov and an imperious reading of the ultimate movement from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.

The orchestra had been joined earlier by pianist Denis Matsuev in Rachmaninov’s celebrated Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor. The orchestra revealed itself to be more partner and active participant than simple accompanist in a reading that was surprisingly short on lyrical imagination and prone to rapid, almost breathless tempi. What Matsuev’s playing lacked in poetic refinement, limpid phrasing and tonal warmth was compensated in part by keenly incisive, somewhat muscular articulation and iron-clad technique. He too offered two encores; a beautifully poised Rachmaninov miniature and an impossibly virtuoso piece by Oscar Peterson. Yet the evening will remain in the mind and the heart for the unparalleled beauty, power and majesty of the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra and the continued and unabashed passion of its music director Valery Gergiev.