“Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.” In the Soviet Union, composers quickly learnt when to toe the Party line. After his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was condemned in Pravda, Shostakovich composed his Fifth Symphony as “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism”, later likening its finale to the forced rejoicing in Boris Godunov. In the same year, Prokofiev wrote his Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, setting texts by Lenin, to prove his Soviet credentials on moving back to Moscow. These works bookended Valery Gergiev’s typically bulging Proms programme with the Mariinsky Orchestra.

Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Shostakovich’s Fifth – however its finale is interpreted – was a triumph at its première and has been one of his most performed works ever since. Prokofiev’s cantata, on the other hand, was never performed during its composer’s lifetime. After finishing his score in August 1937, Prokofiev played it through at the piano in a closed session of the Committee for Artistic Affairs, which frowned upon the work and promptly declared it unworthy of performance. To be honest, the committee had a point. The ten movement, forty minute cantata is pure bombastic tosh, but Gergiev and his Mariinsky forces threw the kitchen sink at it, a battery including an alarm bell, wailing siren, a trio of accordions and a chorus member declaiming Lenin loudly down a megaphone. Under Gergiev’s slicing hands, the brass grunted and snarled, percussionists marched on the spot and the Mariinsky Chorus – squeezed tightly onto the platform – gave it their lusty all in praise of Comrade Lenin, waving a metaphorical red flag or two.

Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra and Mariinsky Chorus © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra and Mariinsky Chorus
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The orchestra was even more fired up for the Shostakovich. Valery of the Quivering Toothpick, now conducting without a score and without a rostrum, drew a powerful, surging account of this magnificent symphony. The abrasive rasp of the brass may not have been as raw as Soviet orchestras of old, but it can still strip paint, and the double basses’ savage tread to open the Allegretto was ominous. Pounding xylophone chilled and the clarion trumpets in the finale blared defiantly. Before coming to the concert, I reminded myself of Gergiev’s searing Shostakovich 4 here with the Mariinsky back in 2002. At a conservative estimate, at least half his string players this evening would have been at school back then, yet this youthful section played with such raw intensity that Shostakovich’s spirit must course through their veins from birth. Gergiev pulled them back to the edges of audibility at times, but he conjures – and holds – silences like few other conductors. A thrilling, astonishing account.

Denis Matsuev and the Mariinsky Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Denis Matsuev and the Mariinsky Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Quite what Tchaikovsky’s Third Piano Concerto was doing sandwiched between these two works was anyone’s guess, but I’m glad it was there. This single movement torso is a clumsy beast at the best of times, but Denis Matsuev tamed it in a barnstorming rendition full of steely trills, iron chords and little subtlety. To compensate for its brevity, Matsuev was awarded two encores: a dazzling account of Lutosławski’s outrageous Paganini Variations – like Rachmaninov on speed – and the charming Musical Snuffbox by Anatoly Lyadov, twinkling and pirouetting before finally winding to a halt. Lyadov also closed the evening, Baba-Yaga grinding her pestle across the night sky as we approached the witching hour, disappearing in a puff of smoke.