When the concert started at 9pm, the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra had been playing for several hours. An evening’s work had already seen them perform Peter and the Wolf and complete an open rehearsal, yet these young, ebullient players remained alert - just another day in their whirlwind European tour. Such indefatigability worked well for their programme of Prokofiev. It also helped that they have the world's leading interpreter of the composer in front of them. Valery Gergiev won acclaim when he drilled the Prokofiev idiom into the LSO, whilst his Mariinsky Orchestra has it coursing through their veins. There were rough patches in tonight's instalment of MITO, Milan and Turin's joint music festival. The vast majority fired in moments that will remain seared into my memory.

Valery Gergiev © Valentin Baranovsky
Valery Gergiev
© Valentin Baranovsky

Bold programming saw mainstream Prokofiev paired with lesser known examples of his output. The composer was under the spell of 1920s avant-garde Paris when he wrote the rarely performed Symphony no. 2, ditching the proportioned approach of his "Classical Symphony" for something steelier. "Nine months of frenzied toil", as the composer put it, yielded a juggernaut first movement. The Mariinsky's forthright grit combined shrill violins and winds with earthy lower strings and acerbic trumpets. Seven brass players sat raised on an island in the right hand corner: a terrifying unit and a law unto themselves. When they joined forces with rampaging percussionists, the effect was extraordinary. 

The orchestra found vivid colours for the highly inventive second movement and variations. Undulating strings and winds thawed beneath the diatonic solo oboe. The rippling pulse continues into the first variation, but now with something dark under the surface. Players bore high into their upper registers in swarming second, Gergiev pulling the energy around with humming bird gestures. He stoked the fires in the in the final variation, flicking paint with his fingers in shudders of sound. 

Such quality failed to materialise in the Sinfonia Concertante. Prokofiev had returned to Russia when he forged the work during what was a creatively frustrated post-war period under the watch of Stalin's regime. But the Concertante has its roots in an earlier, more fruitful period, coming into existence as a reworking of the Cello Concerto in E minor with the help of virtuoso cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. It's a fiendish play, and the Mariinsky Orchestra showed great faith in entrusting the performance to 27-year-old cellist Alexander Ramm. Playing dragged initially in a murky, indecisive sound. This would have made for a soggy curtain raiser, and the last minute decision to demote the work from its original concert opening position therefore proved a wise one.

Assembled forces found their balance as the performance progressed. Orchestral jabs and stabs stole ever more keenly through Ramm's flurry of notes, the cellist in turn becoming increasingly artful in his forages in and out of the orchestral texture. After an assured demonstration of power and technique, his biggest test was always going to be the second movement’s cadenza, in which four pages of Ramm's score had him sawing through double-stopped quavers, grinding out three note chords and paddling up and down the length of the instrument in quicksilver scales. It was an impressive display, and emotional depth accompanies the digital wizardry. This much was certified with a soul-searching encore from the Suite for Cello by Spanish composer Gaspar Cassadó (apparently included as a reference to Prokofiev's Spanish wife Carolina Codina). Milling Mariinsky men at the end of the concert were full of awe at the young cellist's abilities. In its entirety, the performance was moderate with moments of brilliance.

Valery Gergiev doesn't do moderate. Striding offstage and immediately back again, he launched into a brutal account of Romeo and Juliet that cut off the audience mid-applause. The opening blazed, the murmurs transfixed and much of the rest of "Montagues and Capulets" was unhinged. Gergiev found a new gear, his hyperactive frame tormenting the orchestra. We watched the conductor side on, staggering over to the violins in “Juliet as Young Girl" to prompt fervid heat. Such intensity transformed my perspective on the work. The glittering ballroom in "Minuet" was full of rage, and the jaunty staccato in "Masks" saw Gergiev at his most magnetically raw. The "Death of Tybalt" was apocalyptic.

We also learnt that Gergiev knows how to use his distinctive character to work an audience. The Mariinsky Orchestra provided an encore of the Overture to Nabucco, full with mercurial tension and raging melodies. These players make even the Italian repertoire sound Gergievian. It went down a treat.