Valery Gergiev doesn’t aim for technical perfection or for unimpeachable execution: he conducts with almost mystical enthusiasm, drawing all the orchestra with uncontrollable ardour in this magnificent music, so deeply Russian. Pictures at an Exhibition, the piano suite composed in 1878 by Modest Mussorgsky (executed here in the popular orchestration of 1922 by Maurice Ravel).  It was an attempt to translate into music the visual impressions provoked by the paintings of his departed friend Victor Hartmann. Ten paintings, each alluding to a certain state of mind, are spaced out or preceded by promenades, necessary for the visitors to reach the following watercolours or drawings of the exhibition.

The Mariinsky Orchestra with Valery Gergiev © KPO Photo | CAMI
The Mariinsky Orchestra with Valery Gergiev
© KPO Photo | CAMI

The pictures range from the hectic and interrupted tempo of The Gnome, an obscure creature that quickly moves around the forest (great rhythm of the cellos and double basses), to the pure lyricism of The Old Castle, where a warm contralto saxophone expresses the heartfelt love song of an Italian troubadour in front of a castle.

Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle has also been incisively executed. This picture shows two different themes bumping into each other: the begging but persistent one of a poor Jew and the peremptory and oppressive one of a rich Jew. In The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba-Yaga), whose structure is demanding and follows a mad tempo, the orchestra made it brilliantly in rendering the violence of the scene: the pursuit of a witch around her home (a cuckoo clock with fowl legs). The ending of Baba-Yaga extraordinarily softens into the first accord of the following picture: The Great Gate of Kiev, where a sense of nation and Russian soul (always emphasised by Mussorgsky) was emphatically depicted. This last picture is a general jubilation in front of a magnificent gate which should have been constructed as homage to Tsar Alexander II (who survived an assassination attempt). This triumphalism is a reminder of the great mass scenes and the epic of Boris Godunov, that was represented not by accident in 1874, the same year of the composition of Pictures.

The second part of the concert was dedicated to a more intimate piece: Tchaikovsky’s sixth and last symphony, rebaptised the “Pathetique”. Considered by the same author a sort of spiritual testament, in the Sixth Symphony you can feel Tchaikovsky's yearning for perfection: he was never satisfied and always craved an exemplary piece of music. The symphony seems to follow, step by step Tchaikovsky's tormented life; he died nine days after the first public performance of the piece. After the profoundly tragic main theme of the strings and the bassoon (which introduces the opening Adagio), there are some moments of quietness during the second movement, which reminds you of the levity of a waltz. After that, everything is subjugated to the revival of the main theme, which imposes itself like a prophecy, sweeping any hope away.

Musical score and baton were banned: Valery Gergiev conducted with his eyes closed. Moreover, the symbiosis with his own orchestra, the Mariinsky Orchestra of Saint Petersburg, was full and almost palpable. The maestro’s fingers vibrated according to the chord of the violins during the grieving final Adagio or gently slid in the air along with the hymn theme of the The Great Gate of Kiev. They received a warm ovation, even though no encore was given.