When black and white keys burst into an array of colours

XVth International Piano Festival at Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg. December 19-28, 2020.

Paradoxically in the current musical world and as a burst of magic for St Petersburg residents, December 2020 has not been the darkest month of the year for St Petersburg residents. It has featured a premiere of the operetta Der Fledermaus (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 can be seen) and XVth International Piano Festival that took place at the Mariinsky Concert Hall between 19 and 28 December 2020. Usually shining with international stars, this year the Festival featured mainly Russian performers (Vadim Kholodenko, Nikita Abrosimov, Vadim Rudenko, Dmitry Shishkin), but as a surprise for Russian audiences Israeli conductor and pianist Lahav Shani managed to come to St Petersburg. The artistic director of Mariinsky Theatre Valery Gergiev had already achieved a lot in terms of logistics and management during the pandemic by inviting the Silver Medal winner at latest Tchaikovsky Competition (2019) Japanese pianist Mao Fujita (who played Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto and gave his own solo recital), as well as French Grand-Prix holder of XVI Tchaikovsky Competition Alexandre Kantorow (who gave an outstanding performance of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto) to perform in the city. In quite a unique way, the Maestro thus challenged the feeling of closure and gave additional strength and joy to performers and listeners who welcome them.

Dmitry Shishkin and Valery Gergiev. Photo: Natasha Razina

The Festival started on 19th December with Maestro Valery Gergiev and Mariinsky Symphony 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. May be it is the counter effect of the news we are all reading these days, but it is hard to think of any current music live concert as anything rather than joy, even if the original conditions of composition were different. It rang true for those two works specifically, as despite being conceived in a move of willpower to overcome the darkness, both works express the feeling of overcoming and conquering grief.

Dmitry Shishkin at the opening of the Festival. Photo: Natasha Razina

The youthful energy of 2nd prize winner of Tchaikovsky Competition (2019) Dmitry Shishkin combined with masterful leadership of Maestro Gergiev to lead us through the Fifth Concerto where the soloist and the orchestra rarely work independently on the path to Finale, and always interact intensively. After the interval the monumental Brahmsian world was presented to us, as though the whole world unveiled its depth through its sounds. Many composers (Mahler included) might have been inspired by this work in their perception that symphonic world is equal to that of the universe, and St Petersburg audiences were given the chance to expand their perception to the global scale.

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 that physically lighted up the December city that still was not snowed in. Maestro Gergiev started with a very unusual, almost quirky opening to prepare our ears for what was about to come. The evening opened with Igor Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (1923-1924) that offered, in a trademark composer style, an unusual, always changing combination of rhythmic patterns and vibrant interval inventions. The composition design used a combination of piano and wind instruments in interaction with the percussion section created an effect of human breathing. After a period of harmony and relaxation 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).

Lahav Shani and Valery Gergiev. Photo: Natasha Razina

In a quite unique coincidence, St Petersburg residents are extremely lucky to be able to immerse themselves in the atmosphere of Ballets Russes and preparation of famous Stravinsky’s ballets in collaboration with choreographer Michel Fokine and artists Alexandr Golovin and Léon Bakst (The Firebird) and 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. At the time of its conception the 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 does! 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 can even assume that 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. I remember indeed waiting for every moment of the piece to savour it, and Maestro Gergiev offered a true feast for all of us to enjoy, while we were 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.

Lahav Shani and Valery Gergiev. Photo: Natasha Razina

The same effect, with a religious overtone and a strong touch of universal human message, was produced by Lahav Shani on 24th December that is 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 help of creation.

That is with additional gratitude and empathy that I have been listening to his works this year, and I am sure many listeners worldwide have been feeling the same. Beethoven is also one of the few of those geniuses who national belonging has in a way ceased to matter and who incorporates this feeling of our human togetherness, and his Ninth Symphony, featuring a famous Ode to Joy (on 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 not too pompous and not asunderstatements of the power of the work, but just right and very effective and powerful. It led us all to astonding 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. It 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.