This second of two Carnegie Hall appearances by Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra opened with Nelson Freire’s ebullient rendition of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto, opening with Alexander Afanasiev’s full-throated horn solo, the superb orchestra then engaging in dialogue with the piano for much of the opening movement. Freire’s hands floated above the keyboard, striking the keys with the lightest possible touch, yet he was powerful in hammering out big chords, particularly in the dark and dramatic succeeding Scherzo. Oleg Sendetsky’s gorgeous cello solos highlighted the Andante, Freire engaged in chamber music, and he then delighted in the Finale’s airy principal theme, from which Gergiev picked up the pace, making Freire’s pyrotechnics all the more impressive. He offered an encore, Sgambati’s arrangement of ‘Dance of the Blessed Spirits’ from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.
Following intermission, Gergiev, standing on the stage floor, led a thrilling account of Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, sweeping in ‘The Hero’ (Strauss himself). In that section and the next, in which chattering woodwinds represent ‘The Hero’s Adversaries’ (critics), Gergiev masterfully sustained excitement while allowing each line to emerge. Concertmaster Lorenz Nasturica-Herschcowici brilliantly portrayed ‘The Hero’s Companion’ (Strauss’s future wife, Pauline de Ahna) and fanfares by offstage trumpets launched ‘The Hero’s Battlefield’, in which Gergiev kept the orchestra in perfect balance for a realistic and engaging account. Quotations from some of Strauss’s other works comprise ‘The Hero’s Works of Peace’ as if summing up a long and fruitful career, when in fact Strauss was only thirty-four when he wrote it, five further decades awaiting him. ‘The Hero’s Escape from the World and Fulfillment’ has the Hero and Companion settling into a happy retirement. Not content to allow those gentle tones to be the last sounds, Gergiev led the ‘Berceuse and Finale’ from Stravinsky’s The Firebird – spectacular.