The Mariinsky Orchestra

Philip Hammond travels back in time to Leningrad, 1942 - but was it worth the effort?

With recordings of the greatest orchestras in the world available to us at the touch of a button, it is easy to become complacent about the attractions of a live orchestra. The modern symphony is one of the most exciting and intriguing of all artistic mediums.

Unfortunately, there is very little money for visiting orchestras to Northern Ireland. But tonight the Mariinsky Orchestra are in town for the opening concert of this year’s Belfast Festival. I try to recall the last time that a visiting orchestra performed in Belfast. It's a matter of years.

It’s a good crowd, but the Waterfront is by no means full. Conductor Valery Gergiev and Russian born soprano Anastasia Kalagina take to the stage. Kalagina has been one of the Mariinsky Theatre soloists since 2007 and has an impressive pedigree. From her first notes in Dutilleux’s Correspondances, written in 2003, I am captivated by the glorious bloom of her voice and the post-impressionistic timbre of Dutilleux’s sound world.

Correspondances is a song cycle with episodic texts garnered from some unusual sources. Perhaps the most poignant, in tonight’s context, is an extract from a letter by Alexander Solzhenitsyn to Galina Vishnevskaya containing the line 'One can only derive strength from the knowledge that in our time we Russians are fated to a common doom, and one can only hope that the Lord will not punish us to the end'.

There is nothing obvious in Dutilleux’s setting of his chosen texts. Perhaps he hints at the troubled swirls of Van Gogh’s painting in his quotation of the painter’s letters or captures the timelessness inherent in Rilke’s verse excerpts. The singer is beautifully supported by the colours of the orchestra, and at times I am reminded of the rich harmonies of Messaien. With Dutilleux, however, there is none of that extravagance of landscape, not a note too many, nor an instrumental shade too determinate.

In general, there is an elegance and understatement typical of French composition in this translucent music, and throughout Gergiev and the Mariinsky perform all the detail with remarkable clarity - a soft string harmonic, an unexpected accordion line, a muted timpani note, a passing stroke of the gong.

Strangely upsetting then is the end of this song cycle - a definitive statement of 'conclusion', jarring in relation to the subtleties and delicacies of the preceding understatements. I question its efficacy as it seems - relatively - abrupt and brutal.

If the music is aurally fascinating, it is nothing to the mesmerising sight of Gergiev conducting. He is one of those conductors who eschew the baton, preferring to mould the music in an almost physical way, manually. Sometimes he uses some upper body movement to emphasise a dynamic change or a particular pressing of the tempi.

I remember reading how certain of the great conductors of the past held an almost Svengalian influence over their players, especially those conductors who, like Gergiev, established a long term relationship with their own orchestra. Perhaps only then can the orchestra truly respond to every nuance of the conductor’s interpretation, from mind to mind.

Whatever the cause, the effect is palpable. Gergiev launches straight into Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony and the martial five-one progressions become the motive force of the first movement with their concomitant rhythmic patterning. The full range and ability of the Mariinsky Orchestra begins to become apparent.

At 97 players, this is a big orchestra (the Ulster Orchestra usually plays with a basic complement of 63 players). Every section is strong, but it is not an especially Russian sound. Gergiev’s international ear has probably something to do with this.

Gergiev lets this first movement develop without a hint of pushing any of the many different tempi. Everything is totally under control, yet free in its effect - the orchestra is a vibrant transmitter for the unfolding voice of the composer.

As the climax of the movement subsides into the drained and devastated solo woodwinds, I realise that Gergiev makes complete sense of Shostakovich’s lengthy proportions. It is perhaps only in this type of interpretation that the Seventh can reveal its underlying power.

By the time the finale builds I feel that I have travelled on a very lengthy journey indeed. Under Gergiev’s direction, tonight's audience have followed Shostakovich’s most minute thoughts and experiences, not just of the horrors of the Leningrad siege during which the work was written but his subsequent lifetime of distrust, depression, suppression and searching, which has since characterised the composer in the popular mind.

The Leningrad is not an easy symphony to come to terms with. It does follow its own inexorable path. At times, you wish it was over. It dwells on the darkness of the era and, apart from the first movement, there is no easy drama or facile theatricality to distract the listener.

And yet with all that, when the Tolstoyan proportions finally resolve themselves in a blaze of major tonality, clashing cymbals, brass flourishes, percussive interjections and orchestral crescendi, and the symphony reaches its final moment of triumph, I can only think of its first performance in Leningrad and the beleaguered context of that besieged city on the brink of total destruction way back in 1942.

Surely only a live performance such as this one by the Mariinsky under Gergiev can really lift the listener’s imagination into such a different realm?