Valery Gergiev: The passion that drives the ultra patriot | Ed Vulliamy

As Valery Gergiev leads the London Symphony Orchestra in its season opener, the mesmerising, controversial conductor talks to Ed Vulliamy

Valery Gergiev enters the hall at London's Barbican, leaps on to the podium, shakes the hand of the orchestra's leader and bows to the musicians, hand on heart. One would now expect the lights to dim and for Gergiev to dive into his performance.

But this is no concert; rather, it's a rehearsal at 11am of a programme Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra have played innumerable times. Wearing a blue shirt hanging loose, he slings his jacket over the podium railings, flicks a forelock from his brow and rests back on a stool. "Good morning," he grins.

Gergiev is the greatest conductor of his generation. Even those who disagree concede that he is the most electrifying. His high profile internationally is based on his spellbinding effect on audiences and musicians alike – not to mention his famous performance of Shostakovich's Leningrad symphony to an audience of Russian soldiers and tank commanders amid the ruins of the capital of his homeland, Tskhinvali in South Ossetia, after fighting between Russian and Georgian troops.

In Russia, Gergiev is an emblem of nationhood as well as cultural prowess. Within days of this rehearsal, Gergiev will take 24 hours out between performances with the LSO in Europe to perform in Moscow to 250,000 people on Russia's national day. But Gergiev is also a jewel in Britain's crown; since the start of 2007, he has been principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.

In terms of sheer, thrilling unpredictability, a Gergiev concert is the musical equivalent of what it must be like in the seat of a racing car rounding a hairpin bend and holding the road; again, not only for the audience – it is like that for the musicians too. "I doubt we will see another conductor like him," says Noel Bradshaw, who has played the cello with the LSO for 25 years, "during this generation, if ever."

Born in 1953 and raised in North Ossetia, Gergiev went to his adoptive home, Leningrad, to study at the conservatoire in 1972. Already, he had been steeped in the performances of the conductors he cites when he explains his own way of working. Asked what on earth is going on at his concerts, he says: "It's easier for me to explain what I felt when I was a student while I was able to listen to some of the great recordings of the past," citing especially Toscanini and Wilhelm Fürtwangler in big Romantic repertoire.

For now at the Barbican, they rehearse the opening of Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances, the composer's last piece, written in 1940 and full of reflections on his life and the country from which he was estranged. Gergiev takes the orchestra over and over again through a select group of phrases until they have achieved the exact sonority he is after. Then in front of an audience he will unleash his musicians, without rehearsal, across the rest during the performance itself. "He will go through a short passage," says double bass player Matthew Gibson, "over and over until the palette is right, then improvise the whole picture on the night. That is how he likes to work and that is how the LSO works best."

"His rehearsal technique, or strategy," says Bradshaw, "is to establish the sound he wants, then leave as much as he, or we, can to the concert itself."

So many batons have flown from Gergiev's hand into audiences and orchestras over the years that he now conducts with a toothpick, or with an inimitable flutter of the fingers. The way he communicates with his musicians in rehearsal is both direct and poetic, decisive and democratic. "I am a musician, as they are too. We are equals, but I am at the centre," he says.

The closer the piece gets to its conclusion, the more Gergiev immerses himself, beads of sweat forming on his brow, although the seats are empty; this is no spectacle, this is music making. Next is Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements, written the same year as the dances, but how different: here is a terrifying piece of wartime music, but that of an exile in the United States watching his native Russia being overrun by the Nazis.

"At this point," says Gergiev at a particularly searing moment, "don't think about the neighbours." "Should it be measured?" asks a member of the orchestra. "Maybe," replies Gergiev, "but it should sound something like a motorcycle – strange, but this is Stravinsky."

Gergiev is forever citing and invoking his heroes, Evgeny Mravinsky and Fürtwangler. And yet both these men were notoriously tyrannical; Gergiev's menace is different.

"In a way," says Rachel Gough, principal bassoonist, "the most frightening thing of all is to be trusted to get it right on the night. He throws us in and expects us to rise to the challenge. That is how he gets the very best out of us. We are the kind of orchestra that responds to that; for us as for him, it is all about the performance".

Next day, the orchestra departs for a tour of eastern Europe while in London the Royal Philharmonic Society awards the maestro a prize for being the year's outstanding conductor. Gergiev accepts by video-link and six hours later, at 5am next morning, the boxed silver statuette of Orpheus's lyre is on the scanner at Heathrow, in hand baggage carried by the LSO's managing director, Kathryn McDowell.

McDowell talks about planning the orchestra's seasons and concerts as a team. Gergiev is "very particular about the choice of repertoire and how a concert or season is structured," she says. "He thinks very deeply about these programmes, has these long lists and we pore over them together. Yes, you have to grab your moment and pin him down, but once you do, the focus is total. We are lucky to have him as a principal conductor, which is the LSO's tradition, rather than a music director, which is what Gergiev is for the Mariinsky and which we do not have. Here, his role is entirely creative, within an orchestra that runs itself as a co-operative."

"Gergiev is more likely to take risks with us than with the Mariinsky," says Gough. "With them, he is the boss, the musical director who has to do everything, they are his orchestra. The LSO is more like the glamorous mistress."

Gergiev assembles the orchestra in the wooden-panelled, red velvet-seated, communist-era hall in Vilnius. After dealing with calls on his mobile phones, he worries about the acoustics. Briefly accepting the Royal Philharmonic award from McDowell and disposing of it, he turns to the matter in hand: rearrangement of the musicians' seating – "Everyone forward two metres, please" – so as to project that much more forcefully.

The opening piece will be a world premiere by Gergiev's Russian friend Rodion Shchedrin entitled "Lithuanian Saga". Shchedrin is up-front about exactly how he wants his music played, hardly deferential towards the guest orchestra, and Gergiev accordingly becomes markedly more bossy with the musicians in the presence of an esteemed fellow Russian.

Gergiev says: "It is a conductor's duty to cross the line, to take risks. Our duty is to the public, not the critics. If you want to please the critics, then you shouldn't conduct at all."

"Some critics get very bound up with the fact that it doesn't sound 'right'," says Gough, before the Vilnius concert. "It upsets them that it is not perfect. But he doesn't care whether they like it or not; he cares whether the public hears and is excited by what the composer wants to say with the music and that is what we want to do. What we strive for is that sixth dimension, a feeling, an experience – and with Gergiev, it happens."

Tonight's audience arrives like a 60s fashion parade, all silver suits and lace ruffs, drinking brightly coloured fruit cocktails. Vilnius in Lithuania, once a part of the USSR, now a country antipathetic towards Russia, gets ready to greet a Russian superstar. Here, there is no British fussing about fire regulations that might prevent those who have not found a seat from standing in the aisles and up the stairwells. And Gergiev turns up the volume to maximum, so that Stravinsky is a whirlwind flying around the inhospitable acoustics and Rachmaninov is amplified to almost Mahlerian levels. Gergiev, unshaven, his tails more crinkled than usual, looks at once exhausted and possessed. Then he relaxes entirely, back home in a way – or nearly – with friends running the Vilnius festival, chatting in Russian about music, sport and mutual acquaintances at a reception – Gergiev at ease, social Gergiev.

"He has this way of suddenly stopping," says Lennox Mackenzie, chairman of the orchestra (the LSO is a co-operative that selects its members) and sub-leader, "and you wonder, 'Where the hell do we go now?' And somehow he lets you know exactly where. There's a sort of alchemy to it. And part of that alchemy is Gergiev's way of adapting the performance to a particular venue, his sense of the audience, then creating a complete surprise for everyone – us and them."

On the charter plane to Tallinn, Baltic port capital of Estonia, Gergiev, sitting by a window, talks about football and Shostakovich. "I hear it is a very small hall we are playing in tonight. We shall see what can be done. He gives an enigmatic, mischievous grimace. Then he falls into silence and stares out across the flat land, the forests and meadows, north-east towards St Petersburg. "Tomorrow, I will see my wife and children, at last," he sighs.

His family is important to him. His wife, Natalya Debisova, is 27 years his junior and they have three children. His father died suddenly when he was just 14 but he remains extremely close to his 85- year-old mother. He said recently, "My mother is living with us. She can teach my children what she learned from trying to bring me up. It pleases me that she has this role now." In the past, he would not think about travelling great distances around the world. "Now," he says, "I am much more careful. If there is a chance to go to Japan and a chance to perform in China, I will do it in one trip. Five years ago, I would have made four trips in three months. I try to spend more time with my children or take them with me if I don't have a killer schedule – I don't want my daughter of five years old to fly six hours every day."

"I don't recognise the Gergiev I often read about," says bassist Matthew Gibson. "One of the most striking things about him off-stage is that he never forgets a face or a name. Before he joined, we were introduced and some months later I went backstage after a performance by the Mariinsky, all these opera stars and conductors there, and he called over and said, 'Ah, Matthew, what did you think?'" McDowell remembers introducing Gergiev to David Trimble at the Barbican and Gergiev saying: "Ah, we have not met since the concert for the victims of Omagh."

"One of the things many people assume about Gergiev is that he is interested in self-gratification and being famous," says Bradshaw, "and some great conductors I've worked with are. Now that Leonard Bernstein is dead, I can say that he was interested in fame, because he was. But not Gergiev. Yes, he wants to be influential, he wants a role in public life, so he can get things done that he is interested in, like the new concert hall in St Petersburg. But not to be famous for its own sake. Adulation does nothing for him – in fact, it's the last thing that interests him.

"Gergiev really believes that he can do something that has never been done before and that faith is contagious, it transfers to the orchestra. He is a totally committed performer and this is crucial to what we do with him. Every orchestra has its special sound, its way of doing things. The Austro-German tradition of conducting is that you prepare in rehearsal exactly what you will do in the concert and there are some great orchestras and conductors that work like that, and give terrific concerts.

"But the LSO has a tradition of working best with conductors who take an element of risk in the concert hall and that is certainly Gergiev's way. It's more stressful, and it is not for everybody, but requires deep trust and this fantastic communication in the moment – eye contact, the finger-flutter gesture – and he stretches and tests us to the maximum, more than we ever have been tested or ever will be. Sometimes we can be on the edge of a calamity and it turns to gold."

During the aftermath of communism in the USSR, Gergiev did two things: he and the new president, Vladimir Putin, set out to stop the haemorrhaging of Russian talent out of the country (along with much of its wealth) under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin by securing funds for musicians' salaries and refurbishment. The second was to liberate a whole canon of Shostakovich's music by bringing it into the mainstream repertoire. "Dmitri Shostakovich was a man full of energy, of sharp and extremely funny words," says Gergiev. "He was known among friends as someone who comes to the party and right away from opening the door and entering the room full of some of the geniuses of the century, and even before they started to eat he would fill his glass – a big glass like we drink tea from – and fill it with vodka. Just once in the entire evening, but he would empty it in one second, like an explosion – pah! This is not a huge man, but he was able to do it. He was never totally drunk, but he was able to shock people with this ability – that was his way of living: if you do it, do it to the maximum."

Gergiev could be describing himself. And even more so, when the conversation turns to Shostakovich and football. "Football would drive him crazy. When he was in Leningrad, before the war, he would go crazy because the Moscow-Leningrad rivalry was so huge, like Manchester-Liverpool, maybe even more furious. Shostakovich was completely crazy about football. We are not talking about people who compose pessimistic symphonies all their lives and then suddenly go to the stadium and laugh and scream, jump and smoke like crazy."

Gergiev, who numbers both former Chelsea manager Guus Hiddink and England manager Fabio Capello among his friends, adds: "I've stopped smoking but yes, I still scream if there is a goal. I'm not fanatical about any side, but the last great game I saw was Manchester United versus Chelsea when I was present in the stand. High tension, drama; that game was everything you could wish for."

Bassoonist Gough says: "One of the most extraordinary things about Gergiev is this ability to be the ebullient, outgoing, all things to all men, but then to focus suddenly on the musical matter in hand. He can be surrounded by cameras or hangers-on, or by friends talking about football, but in the blink of an eye, it's suddenly, and very severely, 'Right, bar 57. Allegro ma non troppo.' The only time I have ever known him distracted, with his mind clearly elsewhere, was during the fighting in his homeland."

When Gergiev played the Leningrad symphony – a sacred anthem in Russian history about withstanding siege by the Nazis – in South Ossetia, opinion in the west was either confused or appalled that Gergiev should make so bold a statement apparently in support of the then President Putin and in defiance of Georgia, whose crushing of the South Ossetian secessionist movement the west broadly supported. Gergiev has repeatedly said he was proud of what he did as a Russian, and would do it again.

And why should this come as such a surprise? This the man who played a concert for peace in Omagh cathedral after the bombing and gave another similar performance in the infamous Ossetian town of Beslan, after hundreds of schoolchildren were killed by Chechen terrorists. "I am an Ossetian first and foremost," Gergiev once said of the forests and mountains to which he retreats when his schedule permits.

Bassist Gibson says: "It would have been more surprising, I think, if he had not gone to conduct in his homeland after it had been bombarded."

Perhaps we in the west want our Russians neatly packaged and easily explained in a way that reality does not allow. Shostakovich has to be either a great dissident or a party toady; there is no room in the western mindset for him to be both.

Similarly, Gergiev has , in western eyes, to be either the wild, rock star genius who remoulded the old, staid Soviet Kirov opera into the new Mariinsky for capitalist consumption, or else Putin's puppet who plays in front of Russian tanks. Any consideration of a great Russian artist must understand, or at least acknowledge, the multilayered existence they live in a country where the call of Mother Russia is deep, where art and politics have always been entwined under any system, be it a tsarist monarchy, communist dictatorship or contemporary democracy. The fact is that two plus two does not necessarily equal four in Russia.

Asked how he feels being an ambassador for Russia, he says: "You are an ambassador for your country even if you are doing very little. But I have many opportunities. If you do something wrong with all these incredible opportunities, then you will be blamed. I will not stupidly defend Russia simply because it is Russia and it is my country. But something terrible has to happen to me before I become a man who wants to be separated from his country. Look, I would finish with this: Russia is a country that can be wrong, and the leadership can be wrong, but altogether it is a peaceful country."

With his constant citing of Shostakovich, Mravinsky and Fürtwangler, Gergiev feels a much closer bond to the epic tribulations of the 20th century than his peers, such as Simon Rattle or Claudio Abbado. It is sometimes – when he plays not only Russian music, but that by Mahler or, this season in London, Dutilleux, who knew Ravel – as though Gergiev carries the weight of the 20th century and these events on his shoulders.

"He is so close to it all," says Gough. "He talks about it and feels the history that is so present in Russian life, far more than it can be in that of an island that does not know what civil war is and has a mask of democracy to hide behind." Adds Gareth Davies, principal flautist: "He has this incredibly strong sense of his homeland and of its suffering."

"In the second world war," says Gergiev, "Russia suffered more, and the Russians suffered more, than even the Jewish people. Russia lost 20m people, plus another maybe 10m from the Stalin era – 30m, 40m just killed. They are not dying their own death. And no one wants another war. But as a big country, Russia has its own vision for its future and I think it would be totally, totally wrong to ignore that, also for the western countries ... I am ready to be an ambassador so long as I feel that what I do is right."

Conduct becoming: The life of Gergiev

Born Valery Abisalovich Gergiev in Moscow, 1953. Brought up in North Ossetia alongside two sisters. When Valery is 14, his father dies of a heart attack. Begins piano at secondary school and, aged 19, joins the conducting course at the Leningrad Conservatory.

1976 Wins the All-Soviet Conducting Prize.

1978 Makes his debut with the Kirov Opera.

1981 Appointed chief conductor of the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra.

1988 London debut with the London Symphony Orchestra.

1996 Chosen by the Russian government to be the Mariinsky Theatre's artistic director.

1999 Marries Natalya Debisova. They have three children.

2005 Appointed principal conductor at the London Symphony Orchestra.

2008 Conducts a concert paying tribute to South Ossetian war victims outside the region's ruined parliamentary building.

They say: "Gergiev doesn't know what it is to hold back. No matter how hard he pushes others, he pushes himself further." Brian Large, classical music film and TV director.

He says: "Democracy is not a good thing when it comes to music. You cannot vote for the right dynamics or the right tempo." Sam Moodie


Ed Vulliamy

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Valery Gergiev interview: 'Berlioz inspired me long before I ever dreamed I would conduct'
The Russian conductor Valery Gergiev's current Berlioz season has been marked by protests. Before the controversy erupted, he spoke to Ed Vulliamy about the passion he feels for the French composer's work

Ed Vulliamy

10, Nov, 2013 @2:16 PM

Article image
Russian conductor Valery Gergiev denies supporting anti-gay legislation
London Symphony Orchestra's principal conductor issues statement following gay rights protests in London and New York

Mark Brown, arts correspondent

06, Nov, 2013 @5:24 PM

Article image
Conductor Valery Gergiev supports Putin, so he must face the music | Peter Tatchell
Peter Tatchell: Gergiev says he is not political, but his overt backing for a president who discriminates against gay people says otherwise

Peter Tatchell

07, Nov, 2013 @2:18 PM

LSO/Valery Gergiev | Classical review
Barbican, London
Any performance of Messiaen testosterone-charged Turangalîla Symphony tends to obliterate everything else in its vicinity – and Valery Gergiev looked shattered at the end, writes Martin Kettle

Martin Kettle

24, May, 2010 @9:16 PM

Article image
Valery Gergiev concert picketed by gay rights supporters
London Symphony Orchestra principal conductor targeted over his backing for Putin, who has introduced anti-gay laws in Russia

Mark Brown, arts correspondent

07, Nov, 2013 @7:43 PM

Valery Gergiev 60th birthday gala – review

Apart from a chorus of Happy Birthday, the programme avoided any of the familiar Gergiev orchestral showstoppers, writes Tim Ashley

Tim Ashley

24, May, 2013 @4:47 PM

Article image
Gay rights protesters to picket LSO's pro-Putin conductor Valery Gergiev

Activist Peter Tatchell urges Gergiev to speak out over Russia's new homophobic laws but orchestra distances itself from outcry

Mark Brown, Arts correspondent

04, Nov, 2013 @9:34 PM

Article image
Tristan und Isolde, Royal Festival Hall; LSO/Gergiev | Classical review
Peter Sellars's long-awaited production of Tristan und Isolde is an overwhelming triumph, says Fiona Maddocks

Fiona Maddocks

02, Oct, 2010 @11:05 PM

Classical review: LSO/Gergiev, Barbican, London

Classical review:
Gergiev's delivery of striking ideas and dark fantastical manner was impeccably assured, writes George Hall

George Hall

10, May, 2009 @11:14 PM

LSO/Gergiev | Classical review
After a less than annihilating first half, Valery Gergiev produced one of the great performances of Stravinsky's Petrushka, writes Tim Ashley

Tim Ashley

16, Feb, 2010 @11:30 PM