What a difference a revolution makes.

Prokofiev finished the Symphony no. 1 in D major in September 1917, a month before the cataclysm of the October Revolution, and much of the Violin Concerto no. 1 in D major in the same period (although it was not premièred for another six years). Both works exude sunshine and mercurial wit. The Second and Third Symphonies, however, were written in the 1920s in Paris: both are dark, densely orchestrated works of almost unbearable intensity. In an exhausting programme at Cadogan Hall last night (with more to come today and Wednesday), Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra gave us a searching examination of those works, each half showing us the contrast between light and shade, airiness and density.

Valery Gergiev © Alberto Venzago
Valery Gergiev
© Alberto Venzago

The Mariinsky’s sound – particularly the string sound – is distinctive, even when set against other great orchestras. Where listening to the Dresden Staatskapelle is like listening to a giant string quintet, hearing the Mariinsky is a wholly different experience: the ensemble playing is every bit as together, but the variety of their instruments gives an extraordinary layering of texture. Cadogan Hall has a warm acoustic in a relatively small space; listening to the Mariinsky here was thrilling, if only for the sheer volume of sound and the way it filled the harmonic range.

The first movement of the Symphony no. 1 may have been a fraction short on delicacy, but the second movement Larghetto showed that this orchestra isn’t purely about big sound, with scampering pizzicato and real grace in the phrasing. The Gavotte is familiar from Romeo and Juliet, but you didn’t need dancers in front of you to be infected by the spirit of the dance. The finale was a madcap piece of joy, marked by wonderful glissandi and expert articulation of fast brass passages.

The first notes of the two-movement Symphony no. 2 announce a totally opposite mood. Scampering strings are set against imposing, discordant low brass, and soon after, Prokofiev sets up a propulsive, heavily accented drive which is maintained for the majority of the first movement. If the music slows down, it’s only so that the tension can be wound up further, with a heavy-footed tuba phrase whose rhythm reminds one of the solidity of the Dies irae motif. The second movement starts as an oasis of calm, with a beautiful, plaintive oboe melody. At the end of the first phrase, the oboe leads one of those chord shifts that is pure Prokofiev, moving to a key that your ears cannot possibly be expecting but which is profoundly satisfying when you arrive. But the mood of calm doesn’t last, replaced by a set of increasingly threatening variations before the opening theme returns. Throughout the set of highly diverse changes in instrumentation, Gergiev kept immaculate balance and poise, whether with a perfect unison between clarinets and trumpets, the richness of a passage for cellos and basses only, the brightness of woodwind trills, or a faraway piano.

In the second half, I was disappointed by soloist Kristóf Baráti, with many occasions in which he didn’t seem quite connected to the other musicians. When the orchestra is quite as virtuosic and distinctive in timbre, it needs something special for the soloist to stamp his authority over them. Baráti didn’t succeed in drawing my ear to him rather than to the orchestra (you can choose whether to put this down to the soloist or to incorrect balance from the conductor).  There were good moments, Baráti sounding best in the more overtly romantic passages than in the spikier ones, but not enough to make a memorable performance.

The Symphony no. 3 opened with a true wall of sound, then giving us a bit of relaxation before Prokofiev ratchets up the tension once more as we move towards a climax, the interplay between trombone, timpani and strings especially effective, as was a distinctive passage underpinned by snare drum. Whether in a slow lyrical passage, a fanfare rising out of nothing, the sweetness of flutes emerging from a big brass chord or those same flutes playing a maniacal swirl of notes, the orchestra continued to show its brilliance and flexibility at every turn. The return to a closing wall of sound reinforced quite how dense is Prokofiev’s writing, and quite how much music we had listened to in the course of the evening.

****1