On 22-31 December 2018, just before the New Year celebrations, residents of Saint Petersburg and guests of the city had a unique opportunity to hear Russian and visiting pianists playing in solo recital and with Mariinsky Orchestra, with a schedule of concerts reaching up to 3 a day, and including internationally known figures and young aspiring artists and also showcasing students of a particular pedagogue from Moscow or St Petersburg. The repertoire ranged from Mozart and Beethoven (as well as Debussy, Ravel, Mendelssohn and Rachmaninov) to modern Russian and European composers like Magnus Lindberg (whose Second Piano concerto was premiered in Russia during the festival) and 20thcentury composers Boris and Alexander Tchaikovsky. Valery Gergiev was supervising and directing many concerts during the Festival, and it was a unique chance to see the maestro conduct many orcherstral pieces, starting from an astounding Ravel’s music to the ballet ‘Daphnis et Chloé’.

Denis Matsuev, Aleksandra Dogan and Valery Gergiev. Photo: Valentin Baranovsky

The festival had a grandiose start on 22 December 2018, with maestro Gergiev conducting three suites from Ravel’s ‘Daphnis et Chloé’ (1912) two times: in the Mariinsky Concert Hall in the afternoon and in the Mariinsky Theatre in the evening. Ravel’s music thematically and melodically evokes the connections with Debussy’s ‘Prélude á l’après-midi d’un faune’ (1894) Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913) and allowed Gergiev, who is a master of such orchestral fairytale journeys, to unravel a long multi-dimensional walk through a Greek myth. Flautist Nikolai Mokhov shined on both occasions, and one appreciated the three-dimensional and assured sonority of the sound developed by the orchestra under the baton of the Russian maestro. During both performances one could close one’s eyes and allow the music to wrap itself around your ears and mind, as there were many beautiful dances on Arcadian lawns that Ravel’c choreographical symphony led you through. A Dyonisian element was most surely there, and thus the Zeitgeist of early 20thcentury mythological exploration was brought back to the beginning of the pragmatic 21st.

The revelation of the evening concert was a 13-year-old Alexandra Dovgan who played Mendelsohn’s Piano Concerto No 1, that seemed to suit her perfectly. Interestingly, the concert is dedicated to a 17-year-old Delphine von Schauroth, and thus seems perfect for a young woman pianist to reveal its beauty and clarity, with its overall harmony never distrurbed even by most difficult piano passages, and to bring touches of her own soul and purity to it. Alexandra Dovgan did just that – she was one with the music, she breathed it and she lived with it, she suddenly showed us that music can stop being an objective stream of sound that we can choose to get involved in and become something overwhelmingly present, like the air we breathe, so we can’t avoid being part of it streamed through the personality of the performer. It was hard to say if we heard Mendelssohn’s music or Alexandra’s music, as she was like a tiny white channel transporting music to us and making it modern, poignant, vibrant and beautiful. For contrast her partner on stage was the flamboyant Denis Matsuev, who played Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ in a liberating and playful style, self-indulgently but masterfully going into long improvisations that were almost like jazz jam sessions, especially as Alexander Zinger (percussion) and Alexander Ivanov (bass) joined him. A very stylish and exuberant opening of the festival, showing its engagement in bringing together the well-established and the talented young players.

Boris Berezovsky and Daria Tchaikovskaya. Photo: Valentin Baranovsky

The same sensation of wonder already experienced at the opening of the Festival struck the listeners when Alexandra Dovgan gave her solo recital on 28 December 2018 in Mariinsky Concert Hall. There is a very unique, almost undescribable feeling that she awakes in the audience once she is on stage. I can presume that’s what people felt when they heard Evgeny Kissin or Mozart himself perform – you see a young kid who is a fully-formed grown-up as far as music is concerned, and you begin to wonder about how the knowledge of beauty and structure is transmitted to human brain and soul and what kind of qualities in an invidiual make them reach that level of attunement to hidden, unspoken, almost imperceptible and so powerful qualities of music. You can compare hearing Alexandra’s recital to falling in love and having an epiphany about a work of art or suddenly knowing and feeling more of the world’s beauty than you did before. Her programme was structured by her teacher Mira Marchenko to reveal tenderness and elegancy of her approach and included a lot of French music, as well as Chopin’s valses. There were pieces by François Couperin (‘Les Maillotins’) and Rameau (‘Le Rappel des Oiseaux’), as well as Debussy’s ‘Le coin des enfants’ (Children’s Corner) suite. But Alexandra also proved herself as an interpreter of such complicated pieces by modern composers as ‘Lyrica Nova’ by Sergei Bortkevich and Etude no 6 (‘Dedication to Domenico Scarlatti’) by Canadian composer Mark-André Hamelin. The feeling that Alexandra untaps new depths in music in whatever piece she touches never leaves you, but you realize that she is guarded by her mentor through paths that help her to retain her fragility and youthfulness and make her sounds shine like pearls.

A very interesting and cleverly programmed concert enttiled ‘The Tchaikovskys’ took place on 26thDecember 2018 at Mariinsky Concert Hall. Pianists Darya Tchaikovskaya and Boris Berezovsky united with conductor Pavel Smelkov in a very smart conspiracy to play three concertos for piano and orchestra: by Boris Tchaikovsky (1971), by Alexander Tchaikovsky (Concerto for two pianos, 1999) and – to finish the evening off – by Pyotr Tchaikovsky (Piano Concerto no 2, 1879-1880). Boris Tchaikovsky’s concerto was written with the use of minimalist technique, where chords were constantly repeated and sometimes developed in one hand only, and its parts being only indications of needed tempo, while it is only strings and horns (and sometimes drums) that accompany the soloist. Somehow, when played by Darya Tchaikovskaya, it allowed the audience to go to a mantra-like state and appreciate this musical construction almost like an absurdist play. Alexander Tchaikovsky’s concerto involved both pianists in a constant dialogue with each other and the orchestra, with visions of Philip Glass’s music haunting the listener when hearing it. Boris Berezovsky finished the evening with a sensuous and assured interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto where the pianist has to be attentive to respective solos of violin and cello in its second part. The evening revealed that music is always about partnership and dialogue where new voices are heard, supported and developed to create sound, and where the intricacies of a composer’s invention can lead you up the unexpected paths in your own mind.

Daniil Saiamov

A very well-prepared and high-quality recital was given by young American pianist Andrew Tyson who belongs to the Romantic style of music making and proves that is not dying out among many other modern tendencies of muscular and rhythmic music making. Tyson seems to revel in pauses and silences and careful and very intellectual phrasing of musical passages, this making his performance of Ravel’s ‘Miroirs’ (Reflections) full of imagery resounding in immense depth and beauty. As a continuation of exploration of French early 20thcentury impressionsism in music, the second recital of the day (26thDecember 2018) was Chinese pianist Sa Chen playing Debussy’s ‘Images’ (I and II), as well as his 12 Études. Sa Chen’s style was very diffferent, with her technique outstanding, but her trust in the composer reduced by her continuous application of her forcefulness and temperament to elusive Debussy’s textures, making them sound like something entirely different and not giving a listener a change to form the very images that composer wished to evoke. Another revelation of the Festival was Federico Colli (30 December 2018) who astounded the audiences in innovative rendering of Scarlatti’s eight sonatas, Beethoven’s ‘Appasionata’ and Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’. Colli’s power, freshness and temperament seem to make us hear all these famous works in a new light – one definitely wants to hear more from this extraordinary pianist.

A personal highlight of the Festival for me was the concert on 29thDecember 2019 where Daniil Sayamov made a Russian premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s Piano Concerto No 2 (2012), with Mariinsky orchestra performing under the baton of Bulgarian maestro Misha Damev. Daniil decided to learn the score of this incredibly difficult concert after hearing Yefim Bronfman playing it with New York Philharmonic. The 60-year old Finnish composer is one of the most influential on modern world scene of composition, and in his dense textures creates mind-engaging and very contemporary sound worlds, while in his rhythm always drives the orchestra and soloist forward, never letting them breathe calmly for a single moment. Lindberg mentions being inspired by Ravel and Bartok, but bring to his concerto the modernism of intellectual thought in composing and hearing it could be compared to reading a contemporary novel or watching a European avant-garde film. Percussion is in constant dialogue and collaboration with the soloist, and requires outstanding skills and concentration from the pianist. Sayamov, being always supported by Damev in his endeavour, took the challenge of performing it with fervour, temperament and freshness of sound worthy of the original Lindberg’s vision. One never took one’s eyes from Daniil, following him on his journey as though he was an mountaineer climbing a dangerous and breathtaking peak, with the sounds being his steps forward and changes of dynamics and phrasing serving as twists and turns on his unpredictable journey. Could music be exciting as science fiction or a thriller movie? It certainly can, as Sayamov and Lindberg prove. I don’t think I was ever so emotionally and intellectually involved in listening to a concert, and it was also a highlight of my whole musical year.

Denis Matsuev, and Valery Gergiev. Photo: Valentin Baranovsky

And then there were collaborations of masters of Russian pianism with maestro Gergiev in works for piano and orchestra that were to be heard during the final days of the Festival. Thus, Pavel Gililov played beautiful Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3 in Mariinsky Hall (28 December 2018), with Valery Gergiev conducting, Alexei Volodin performed Ravel’s jazzy and extraordinarily modern Piano Concerto No 1 in G (30 December 2018), while Sergei Redkin finished the Festival on 31December in the same playful and joyous mood by performing Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 1 (where Timur Martynov was a trumpet soloist). There was also a very interesting and rare performance of Claude Debussy’s work for orchestra, chorus and two soloists (Anastasis Kalagina and Angelina Akhmedova) ‘Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien’, where Valery Gergiev inspirationally led his Mariinsky orchestra in performing this unusual and very haunting piece that resounded beautifully in Mariinsky Concert Hall. The Festival indeed brought a properly festive mood to all St Petersburg residents and guests, and inspired the audiences to get attuned to deeper part of their soul that are responsible for appreciating the world’s beauty before the New Year Eve. What could be a better result of an international festival in Northern Venice organized by Maestro Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theatre?