Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra: looks impressive, sounds even better

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By Natasha Gauthier
Photo: Decca / Marco Borggreve
Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra stopped at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre on Sunday, October 23, as part of their recent Canadian tour. Two Tchaikovsky symphonies were on offer, the First (“Winter Dreams”) and the much more celebrated Sixth (“Pathétique”).

The performance offered a glimpse at a particular kind of symphonic tradition that is rarely seen in North American. The Mariinsky is freakishly homogenous: 100-plus musicians all from more or less the same cultural background, all with the same professional training, and in this instance playing its wheelhouse repertoire. The result is an orchestra that plays like the legendary corps of the Mariinsky Ballet dances: as if they were a single person. 

Every bowstroke happens with one breath. Every instrument is held with exactly the same body position, whether playing or at rest. Even the two bassoonists end their phrases with the same little graceful, perfectly coordinated flourish.

It all looks very impressive, but it sounds even better. Much has already been written about Gergiev’s unorthodox conducting style: the absence of podium (at his height, he hardly needs one) and baton, the vague, amorphous hand gestures. None of it hinders the communication between him and the musicians. 

Winter Dreams is not the greatest of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral works, but Gergiev elevates it by bringing out its atmospheric themes while deftly glossing over its structural weaknesses. The Maestro’s flexible approach to rubato was particularly suited to the lovely, dance-like Scherzo, while the outer movements were distinguished by especially plangent, wintry tones from the woodwinds and brass. 

The monumental and much more challenging Pathétique really allowed the orchestra to stretch its legs, like racehorses springing out of the gate. Gergiev’s tempi choices vary more widely than the norm, and he coaxed the musicians to thrilling contrasts between dazzling speed and dolent restraint. The inexorable buildup through the third movement chugged along like a steam locomotive, and the climax of the finale was powerful enough—both in volume and in emotional impact– to blow you out of your seat.

Read the October 2011 La Scena Musicale cover story on Gergiev here:


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