Despite the grim situation in the music world globally, December has not been the darkest month of the year for St Petersburg residents, but rather a burst of magic. The audiences were able to enjoy the premiere of Der Fledermaus operetta by J.Strauss, a new programme of hispanic-shaded passionate ballets Clay and A Bull on the Roof, four days of Wagner’s tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen (St Petersburg is currently the only place in Russia where the full Ring Cycle was performed) and XV International Piano Festival that took place at Mariinsky Concert Hall between 19 and 28 December 2020.
Usually shining with international stars, this year the Festival featured mainly Russian performers such as Vadim Kholodenko, Nikita Abrosimov, Vadim Rudenko, and Dmitry Shishkin, and as a surprise for Russian audiences Israeli conductor and pianist Lahav Shani managed to come to St Petersburg. Valery Gergiev has already managed to work his magic by bringing to St Petersburg Mao Fujita, Japanese pianist, Tchaikovsky Competition (2019) Silver Medal winner, who played Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto and gave his own solo recital, and Alexandre Kantorow, French Grand-Prix holder of XVI Tchaikovsky Competition, who gave an outstanding performance of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto. In quite a unique way, the Maestro thus challenges the feeling of closure and gives additional strength and joy both to performers and to listeners.
The Festival started on 19th December with Maestro Valery Gergiev and Mariinsky Symphonic Orchestra appearing in tandem with young and bright pianist Dmitry Shishkin performing Beethoven’s Fifth («Emperor») Piano Concerto and then finishing the evening with Johannes Brahms’ First Symphony. Maybe it is the counter effect of the news we are all reading these days, but it is hard to think of any music concert as bringing sad, melancholic or negative feelings, even if the original conditions of composition were not full of joy. I think it rang true for those two works specifically, as despite being conceived in a move of willpower by both composers trying to overcome the darkness gathering more tightly around them, both works reveal grief as an overcome and conquered entity. The youthful energy of 2nd prize winner of Tchaikovsky Competition (2019) Dmitry Shishkin combined with masterful leadership of Maestro Gergiev took us through the Fifth Concerto where the soloist and the orchestra rarely work independently on the path to Finale. Following the interval, we were immersed in the monumental Brahmsian world of sounds. Many composers (Mahler included) might have been inspired by this work to see symphonic world as equal to that of the universe. St Petersburg audiences were given the chance to experience that as well.
The next highlight of the Festival was the concert on 21st December 2020 when Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra, Maestro Valery Gergiev and Israeli pianist Lahav Shani teamed up for an incredible evening of Stravinsky and Mozart. Maestro Gergiev started with a very unusual, almost quirky opening to prepare our ears for what was about to come – Igor Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (1923-1924) that offers, in trademark composer style, an unusual, always changing combination of rhythmic patterns and vibrant interval inventions. Its composition design is an unusual combination of piano and wind instruments in interaction with the percussion section that creates an effect of human breathing. After bringing the listeners’ breath back to expected harmony with Lahav Shani perfoming Mozart’s 27th Piano Concerto in B-flat Major, Maestro gave what could have been his defining orchestral performance of the season with Igor Stravinsky’s symphonic suite to the ballet ‘The Firebird’ (its 1910 version which is the longest).
In a quite unique coincidence, St Petersburg residents are extremely lucky to be able to immerse themselves in the atmosphere of Ballets Russes. They can explore the preparation of famous Stravinsky’s ballets in collaboration with choreographer Michel Fokine and artists Alexandr Golovin, Léon Bakst (The Firebird), Alexander Benois (Pétrouchka) and Nicholas Roerich (The Rite of Spring) as exhibitions dedicated to Sergey Diaghilev (Sheremetev Palace), Alexander Benois and Nicholas Roerich (both at Russian museum) are currently open for visiting. Firebird ballet premiered at Palais Garnier (Opera de Paris) in June 1910. It might be interesting to know now that in no Russian fairytale is the Firebird even distantly related to the ubiquitous Koschei the Deathless, but in this ballet (and in the symphonic suite) it is! Having attended Maestro Gergiev’s rehearsals of The Firebird in December 2019 in Paris, I remember how passionately and vividly he tried to relate the appearance of Koschei to the French musicians. The Russian conductor evidently sees and feels all these magical creatures even in orchestral music that is stripped from its visual and performative elements.
I think Gergiev feels the need to conceive all these magical creatures through music in 3D for the very reason that there is no set imagery or dancing creatures before our eyes. Our imagination has to work, and in Russia the minds are already ripe with what music leads to envision. In another country, by another conductor Stravinsky’s suite could be possibly interpreted with a break from its fairytale roots and in some distanced, innovative, non-narrative way, but in Russia it is just impossible, as everyone in the audience is subconsciously attuned to this world and, even without ever having heard the music, anticipates its twists and turns, as though on a walk in a magical forest. Indeed, I remember waiting for every moment of the piece to savour it, and Maestro Gergiev offered a true feast for all of us to enjoy, sitting on the edge of our seats. It is almost undescribable in words, but this is something that culminated in a burst of joy and energy that lit up the streets of the city when I walked from Mariinsky to the metro station.
The same effect, with a religious overtone and a strong touch of universal human message, was produced by Lahav Shani on 24th December, Catholic Christmas Eve, when he and Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra (joined by singers Natalya Pavlova, Yulia Matochkina, Sergey Skorokhodov and Mikhail Petrenko, as well as Mariinsky Symphony Choir) performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (1822-1824). The year 2020 having been the celebration (reduced for obvious reasons) of Beethoven’s 250th birth anniversary, it is no wonder that the Festival was also channeling the composer’s work – and what joy and empowerment they brought! In a way, I think that Beethoven encapsulates the main vector of all our minds these days: finding a motivation to go forward and overcome the tragedies through the unstoppable (or discovered in order to survive) source of creation.
That is with additional gratitude and empathy that I have been listening to Beethoven works this year, and I am sure many listeners worldwide have been feeling the same. Beethoven is one of those few geniuses whose national belonging ceased to matter and who incorporates this feeling of our human togetherness. His 9th choral symphony featuring a famous Ode to Joy (with Schiller’s words), is almost a direct call to be together and try to find happiness in our unity. Lahav Shani, who has many accomplishments as a conductor (currently being an artistic director of Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra), gave an outstanding performance of this symphony, choosing the tempi and dynamics that felt neither pompous nor as understatements of the power of the work, but just right and led us all to extremely powerful, festive and astounding moments of catharsis that this universal achievement of symphonic work is supposed to produce in its listeners. What a wonderful and spiritual way to celebrate Catholic Christmas and another highlight of the Festival that also included invidividual piano recitals by Shiskin, Kholodenko, Rudenko and Abrosimov highlighting the unique strengths of each performer in both the choice of the programme and their individual style. However, in a paradoxical way, it is orchestral performances that have been most moving and inspiring during this particular edition of the Festival.