There's no denying the chemistry between Valery Gergiev and the music of Tchaikovsky. The Mariinsky chief seems to have the innate ability to channel Pyotr Ilyich's very soul, especially in the doom-laden chasms of the Fifth Symphony. From the resignation of the clarinet's plum-dark introduction, it was clear exactly where we were heading. When Fate comes knocking at the door, Gergiev flings it wide open and invites it in for a samovar of tea. It's that total embrace of the music – like a bear hug – which struck me most on this latest Mariinsky visit to Cadogan Hall.

Valery Gergiev © Alberto Venzago
Valery Gergiev
© Alberto Venzago

If it's Monday, it must be London. The whirlwind Gergiev has just completed a US tour with his orchestra. Today, he'll return to St Petersburg for Shchedrin's The Enchanted Wanderer. Tomorrow, it's Khovanshchina. His caffeine intake must be alarming. Some Gergiev performances can be slipshod, others can find him on autopilot, but not this Fifth. With a young Mariinsky Orchestra glued to every fluttering finger, this was a highly theatrical reading.

True, a few of his idiosyncrasies are as familiar as to be rehearsed; Gergiev's Fifth has got slower over the years, largely due to dramatic rubatos. In the first movement, for example, he likes to slam on the brakes a good dozen bars before Tchaikovsky requests the music should become poco meno animato (a little less animated) and the third movement Waltz hesitates, stops and apologises once too often to be quirky. It's truly indulgent, but when you drag back the tempo and then pull the trigger, the impact of the resulting acceleration can be thrilling.

The Mariinsky sounded in excellent shape, especially its oaken lower strings, anchoring proceedings with grainy depth. Those double bass swells that close the first movement have never sounded so ominous. If the first horn was slightly fuzzy around the edges in the yearning Andante cantabile, then little matter. It was the finale which delivered the stomach punch, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Any sense of triumph was dashed as Fate returned, Gergiev squeezing out the closing chords, even introducing an unwritten pause – like a skipped heartbeat – before the final note.

The first of a trio of concerts declaring an Homage to Tchaikovsky and Petipa, the bill had promised “excerpts” from The Sleeping Beauty. Excerpts? No. Gergiev delivered the whole of Act 2. Musically, it doesn't contain any of the ballet's real gems, other than the flowing Panorama, but the Mariinsky played it for all its worth, with exactly the same commitment as they later did in the symphony. There were a few rough edges – in the exposed hunting horn calls at the beginning and some very loose chords at the end – but in between much of it was glorious. The scene where the Lilac Fairy reveals a vision of Aurora was full of feathery delicacy and the cello solo in the pas d'action was ardently phrased. The leader's tone was lithe but too lean for the following Entr'acte symphonique (composed for violinist Leopold Auer but cut from the original production). What was remarkable was how, devoid of dancing, Tchaikovsky's score emerged afresh, with woodwind phrases coiling like tendrils and queasy strings unsettling Prince Desiré as he wound his way through the undergrowth surrounding the castle.

More ballet followed in the encore, a rather wilful Waltz of the Flowers which lurched from a marmoreal start to a giddy end. I'd defy anyone to dance it, but it was huge fun.

****1