No pandemic is going to stop Valery Gergiev, even if it has clipped his globetrotting. Pinned for much of the year to his St Petersburg base at the Mariinsky Theatre – where audiences returned well before Christmas – he has already notched up 84 performances of opera and the occasional concert and ballet since January, along with a Mariinsky tour to Spain. But Gergiev is also Music Director of the Munich Philharmonic and squeezed in a flying visit to his Bavarian orchestra, bringing two mighty Tchaikovsky warhorses in his hand luggage.

Valery Gergiev and Seong-Jin Cho
© Münchner Philharmoniker

Occasionally, one wondered if the departure time of his return flight had been brought forward. The Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor was given a breezy reading. Seong-Jin Cho, appearing less shy, more assertive than when I first saw him a couple of years ago, gave a lissome account. The Korean is not a pianist to hammer his way through Tchaikovsky’s opening chords – they were played firmly, but not pulverised – and solo passages had panache aplenty. Gergiev, conducting without baton (or toothpick), drew a meaty sound from the Munich Phil strings, led by concertmaster Lorenz Nasturica-Herschcowici beneath his distinctive mop of curly white hair, keeping the tempo purposeful.

Seong-Jin Cho
© Münchner Philharmoniker

Cho shaped an introspective cadenza, caressing the keys poetically with a dreamy touch. He pulled back the pace a little after the airy flute phrases that launch the Andantino semplice second movement were taken swiftly, but the finale was a sprightly dash, pizzicato strings and scampering woodwinds always lively, the coda full of hell-for-leather excitement. 

Without any pause for breath – the video director at fault rather than the conductor – we were plunged into the mournful clarinet phrase that opens Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Gergiev has tended to take the Fifth slower and slower over the years. I’ve heard him stretch that fateful opening to well over three minutes before, but here he was less gloomy, less emphatic. Now led by Naoka Aoki, concertmasters swapping positions, the strings again impressed with their warm tone, while the brass section was superb. Chilean principal horn Matías Piñeira gave a luminous solo in a flowing Andante cantabile

Valery Gergiev conducts the Munich Philharmonic
© Münchner Philharmoniker

Gergiev is a master in Tchaikovsky, particularly at navigating the score’s ebb and flow. He handles rubatos instinctively, the orchestra hanging onto his beat (if you can call those quivering fingers a beat) as he turns the screw tightly until suddenly releasing the tension. The only place where Gergiev’s conducting felt like tinkering was an overly manicured Valse, but accelerator and brake were deftly applied in an excellent finale, which felt more upbeat than stoic, Tchaikovsky’s Fate theme transformed into a joyous gallop to the finish line. 

An odd coda though. In most lockdown streams, the orchestra will applaud the conductor or tap their music stands. Here, silence, before the timpanist hung up his beaters and Gergiev wandered off thoughtfully... perhaps wondering where he’d left his passport.

This performance was reviewed from the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra's video stream