Live | R17: Mariinsky Ensemble & Gergiev at RWCMD

Live | R17: Mariinsky Ensemble & Gergiev at RWCMD

Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, Cardiff, October 10, 2017

Mariinsky Stradivarius Ensemble
Conductor: Valery Gergiev

Shostakovich: Chamber Symphony In C Minor Op.110a
Stravinsky: Concert in D For String Orchestra (‘Basel’)
Tchaikovsky: Serenade For Strings in C, Op.48


What is the Gergiev effect? Well, for a start, a guarantee that Western audiences will be in thrall to him. He’s a ceaseless toiler, a hurricane, as Cardiff music lovers know. Since the Wales Millennium Centre sealed a partnership ten years ago with his Mariinsky Theatre opera and ballet company (formerly the Kirov) in St Petersburg, South Wales has seen a fair amount of him. Among others, the fruits of that alliance have included the only UK performance in 2006 of the company’s production of Wagner’s Ring cycle, presented on four consecutive nights at the WMC somewhat to the marathon work’s detriment. He was its conductor and joint director. No other company tours the show as much and never telescopes the four operas unless it has substitute singers of quality on the bench, as it were.

In 2012, the company and Gergiev were in Cardiff again for a concert version of Wagner’s Parsifal. Two years later its ballet section arrived to perform a programme of 20th century dance, and its chorus, or part of it, to sing Rachmaninov’s Vespers at Llandaff Cathedral for the WMC’s tenth anniversary. On that occasion, Gergiev and the Mariinsky also gave a concert performance of Prokofiev’s comic opera Betrothal In A Monastery. In all these and other appearances worldwide, Gergiev seems to spin like a glittering top. A certain aura surrounds him, its presence at this latest Cardiff appearance resulting in a ten-minute wait before the concert began and an interval after less than thirty minutes of music. If you’re Valery Gergiev, you can get away with it. It’s the Gergiev effect.

The man certainly puts himself about. This concert was the latest outcome of the Cardiff-St Petersburg connection and was arranged with the support of the Mariinsky Theatre Trust and its friends. It involved Gergiev and his Mariinsky Stradivarius Ensemble – a 26-piece string orchestra, on this occasion unaccountably missing one of its six violists – in a whole day’s activities at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, which included a Gergiev master-class with the college’s string ensemble and its string soloists, and an open rehearsal by the Mariinsky players.

Gergiev’s ensemble was formed partly to give an account of the instruments its members play and the sounds they make together. In the theatre’s orchestra, so intimately connected with Russian composers, it’s perhaps no surprise to learn that these, apart from the eponymous Stradivari, were made by Guarneri, Tecchler, Vuillaume, and others (not many by Stradivari, one assumes – at least, not without a chaperone). For its college appearance, which attracted a full house, Gergiev ranged his fourteen violins – first and seconds – in the whole of the semicircle to his left, and the four cellos, two basses and the five violas to the right. Not unusual; but so sumptuous and swelling was the ensemble’s sound that the violins seemed often to be performing above their weight, albeit with an almost driven passion.

This heft of tone was true in Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, the arrangement by Rudolf Barshai of the String Quartet No. 8 Op.110. Insofar as Barshai’s recordings of the work were often with even bigger forces numerically, and a tad quicker, perhaps it was to Gergiev’s credit that the intensity of his orchestra’s playing made it sound more populated than it was, though the compactness of the Dora Stoutzker Hall helped. It was a first-rate performance, resonant of a lot more than glowing surface consistency; for this has to be autobiographical music, those stabbing chords and violin pedal-notes of movement four suggesting not, it has been said, exploding bombs but the proverbial and dreaded knock on the door in dead of night during the Stalin era. Wales’s year-long commemoration of the Russian Revolution, R17, with its hammer & sickle beer mats and lapel badges, is not surprisingly complicated by such minor-mode music, here made to make us think.

Stravinsky’s Concerto in D, the ‘Basel’, makes us want to dance; being wrong-footed would be part of the fun. Paul Sacher’s 1946 commission for a work to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his Basler Kammerorchester arguably required fewer musicians for this performance, if only to lighten its baroque textures and allow its ripieno and concertino elements to rise less encumbered from the density of sound. That said, those violins, playing with unwavering unanimity, delivered a seamless second-movement arioso as keenly as they revelled in the sawtooth rhythms of the finale.

All seemed to be flowing towards the programme’s final work, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade For Strings in C. It represented home territory for this orchestra, once conducted by the composer as well as Berlioz, Wagner, Mahler, and Rachmaninov, and which gave first performances of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth and Sixth symphonies and, with the rest of the company, his operas Iolanta, The Queen Of Spades, and The Nutcracker ballet. It’s also a piece that benefits from the depth of sound commanded by the sort of numbers fielded on the night. Without loss of impact or textural subtlety, it’s even possible to go further, as many orchestras have, and bolster the lower strings to maximise sonorities.

The work might be classical in spirit, and composed with Mozart in mind, but it is gushingly romantic in utterance. Gergiev’s way with it was revelatory. He ensured the various sections were heard to illuminate the first movement’s singing allegro theme; to share the waltz’s melody or supply affecting counter-voices; and, with one accord, to make the folksong-inspired finale exuberant via an elegy more passing sad than solemn. Transparency is one of Gergiev’s watchwords; it was impossible in these works not to know what was going on. To make the goings-on into something exceptionally beyond words is rare. That, too, is the Gergiev effect.


Nigel Jarrett is a freelance writer, a winner of the Rhys Davies prize for short fiction and, in 2016, the inaugural Templar Shorts award. His latest collection of stories, Who Killed Emil Kreisler?, was published last Autumn. He is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review and also reviews jazz for Jazz Journal magazine.

Header photo: Gergiev conducting a masterclass at RWCMD, October 10, 2017. Photo courtesy R17