Mariinsky O/RSNO/Gergiev review – Scotland meets Russia in thrilling display of discipline

Usher Hall, Edinburgh
Valery Gergiev used the combined forces of the Mariinsky and Royal Scottish National orchestras to full effect in Shostakovich’s colossal Fourth Symphony

Valery Gergiev has brought his Mariinsky company to the Edinburgh festival more than once in recent years. He has also – memorably – conducted the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, in an electrifying performance of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky in 2013 that was for many the highlight of that particular festival. None of which means the obvious next step was for him to return to Edinburgh this year and combine his Mariinsky forces with those of the RSNO, but that was what this year’s festival offered up: a one-night-only masterclass in international diplomacy, with the two orchestras coming together under Gergiev’s direction in a programme of three great 20th-century works.

The Russo-Scottish entente cordiale wasn’t on display until after the interval, as the first half of the concert showcased the orchestras separately. First up, the Mariinsky Orchestra gave a measured account of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, all glassy strings and crisp purity. It was poised, controlled and impressive in a cool sort of way but one missed the affection and wit at the heart of the work.

Programming the two orchestras back to back and inviting direct comparisons is a dangerous game but in the event the RSNO strings didn’t come off badly with their account of Britten’s Frank Bridge Variations. There was warmth here and humour, although not always the razor-sharp clarity. Gergiev seemed (perhaps unsurprisingly) a good deal less familiar with the Britten than the Prokofiev and this was particularly apparent in the final movements, where more bite from the lower strings and more sense of direction would have been welcome.

However, this concert was always going to be about the second half when the combined forces came together in a performance of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. Any reservations about programming gimmickry were quickly rendered an utter irrelevance by the strength of the performance. The Fourth is a colossal enigma of a work, Mahlerian in scope and scale. Just as Mahler declared a symphony must contain the world, here Shostakovich does too, and what a disquieting place it is. In the wrong hands the abrupt shifts in direction, the unleashed menace juxtaposed with moments of delicacy, can come across as insincere but Gergiev’s vision was one of absolute conviction. His combined forces met and matched him every step of the way with superb solos from every section of the orchestra and absolute discipline and unity. It was thrilling stuff that kept the capacity audience spellbound long after the final whispered phrases had died away.


Rowena Smith

The GuardianTramp

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