Gergiev at his thrilling best, before the fall

Gergiev at his thrilling best, before the fall


norman lebrecht

January 22, 2022

This St Petersburg Rite of Spring dates from the year I first met Valery Gergiev, before the beard, before Putin made him a puppet, before he flew around in private jets.

While music still came first.



  • Gergiev Admirer says:

    Sorry Norman, but when he is at his best these days, it’s just on a whole other level than anything he put out 20 or more years ago. He has matured tremendously as an artist.
    Here’s a selection of my favorite recordings of his from the last 15 years, which are all incredible:

    -2021, Beethoven Piano Concerto 3 with Buchbinder and Münchner Philarmoniker
    -2020, Beethoven Violin Concerto with Daniel Lozakovich and Munich.
    -2018, Scheherazade with Munich. Gergiev at his best!
    -2018, Rococco Variations with Andrei Ionitá and Munich.
    -2017, Mahler Symphony 4 with Munich. His Mahlers with Munich are all excellent, and it’s surprising to see how much better he got in this repertoire since his abysmal LSO cycle.
    -2017, Strauss’ Don Juan with Munich. Wow! What sound…you can also check out Till and Heldenleben.
    -2017, Shostakovich 9 with Munich. What amazingly refined and fresh playing!
    -2016, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. When I first heard it, this became my new reference recording. It’s mind-blowing, and will probably never be equaled in my lifetime. And if you directly compare it with his 1998 recording, you can really see how much his artistry has grown.
    -2012, Tchaikovsky’s 1st with LSO.
    -2011, La Mer with LSO, unlike anything you’ve ever heard, and will certainly make you look in a new way at an old piece.
    -2007, Swan Lake with Mariinsky. Also so much better than all the alternatives.

    Yes, his LSO tenure was very disappointing. But his Munich tenure is much more consistently great, and the orchestra often sounds amazing under him.
    Yes, he gives many very bad concerts every year. But I personally judge artists by their best work, and his best work puts him at the top.

    All of his flaws were already known for a long time anyway. Recall the excellent Guardian piece from 1999:

    To finish off, if you also want proof that he can be phenomenal in live performances, here are a few YouTube video links. I don’t think there’s anybody who can say after watching any of these that Gergiev is not one of the best alive, even if you personally dislike him or his style of music-making:

    Tchaikovsky Symphony No.6, Mov.4 by Gergiev, MTO (2010):

    Berlioz. Harold en Italie, Bashmet, Gergiev (2006)

    Tchaikovsky: Romeo & Juliet / Gergiev · London Symphony Orchestra · BBC Proms 2007:

    Valery Gergiev – Serenade for Strings – Elgar (2016)

    Brahms – Violin Concerto in D major (Janine Jansen, Munchner Philharmoniker, Valery Gergiev) – 2015

    Tchaikovsky “Swan Lake” Suite|Gergiev Mariinsky 2007

    Honorable mention: Mahler – Symphony No. 5 (2020)

  • Puddings says:

    I disagree. He is a better musician and has way better command over the orchestra now. He is definitely overworked, but sadly still better than many conductors today.

  • wiener says:

    Er ist immer noch einer der drei Besten ( Barenboim, Thielemann, Gergiev )

  • prof says:

    Boring. He was always mediocre. He’s buried in the score. Watch young Esa Pekka do this score – he eats it alive.

  • Fan says:

    He was, he is, he will be the best!
    Really, just summarize what he has done and is doing.

  • Sam's Hot Car Lot says:

    Back then, his hands didn’t flit around like butterflies.

  • RW2013 says:

    Was he sight-reading?

  • John Kelly says:

    Even before Putin made Trump a puppet………….

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    I first saw him at the RFH, must have been early 90’s then Onegin in 1993 and Lohengrin in 1995, both at the Garden and both brilliant and have watched him since and I certainly enjoyed the Prokofiev and Shoshtakovich series he did with the LSO at the Barbican. Shame he isn’t here so much nowadays.

  • Evan Tucker says:

    Gergiev was never as great as we thought he was. You can hear the irresponsibility and recklessness from the very beginning of his career. Those kinds of pointless, unreflective risks aren’t greatness, they’re just empty excitement.

  • In awe says:

    He is one of the greatest talents and musicians to have ever walked on this planet! What a shame we put down the very ones we should be cherishing! He’s done more for classical music than any of the authors, or commenters on this site. No one is perfect, but his commitment to true musicianship and real, deep love for his art should be commended, not downplayed. Please stop the madness already and appreciate real talents when you see them. Valery Gergiev is an inspiration!

  • Dave says:

    I would love to meet the man in person and have a nice long personal discussion/conversation.

  • Frank Flambeau says:

    He is very talented.

  • MusicBear88 says:

    I always want to like Gergiev, but I rarely actually do. His recording of “Nutcracker” sounds like somebody told him that if it couldn’t fit on one CD, he’d have to pay a six-figure fine. So fast that it loses all elegance and I doubt you could dance to it.

  • Anonymous Bosch says:

    An awfully large bald spot for a guy in his 30s … (said the man whose girlfriend made him start shaving his head a month after he turned 39).

    I clicked over to YouTube so I could navigate to other pages while listening. There are 53 “Up” votes and zero “Dislikes”.

    That being said, certain conductors are lucky enough to find a piece or two with which they connect on a plane that defies reality, and Salonen and “Sacre” are there. I had the great privilege of hearing him lead … uh, probably the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in a performance at the Berwaldhallen in Stockholm in 2003 which set a new benchmark for me with a work with which I grew-up (the very first Boulez recording, 1963/ORTF).

    Many years ago I purchased the orchestral score and gradually managed to get through all of it (I recall on my first visit that I got lost somewhere around page 14). I know it well. Salonen did so many things which are just missing from this performance. One brief example: the muted horn duet passages at the beginning of Part II were played so unbelievably pianissimo that you literally could have heard a pin drop. I disagree with some of Gergiev’s tempi and derivations (such as unwritten fermati on rests), but it is a competent performance of an incredibly difficult score, if a bit overtly blunt where it needn’t be.

    I did hear Gergiev lead it a few years ago with …uh, the Mariinsky? It was at Salzburg so it could have been any band. Whatever. The indelible memory of that all-Stravinsky programme was “Les noces”.

    Now that I’ve gotten all that out of my system, I recall first hearing Gergiev leading a new production of “Pikovaya dama” at the Metropolitan Opera in 1995, and since then other operas and symphonic concerts, many of which have been damned terrific. A well-known pattern emerged: the longer he stays put in one part of the world, the better the performance will be.

    A highlight was, of all things, Mahler VI. with the NYP in the first days of 1998 (while doing a guest stint at the NYP he was simultaneously leading “Boris Godunov” at the Met). It was one of those rare occasions where I had to be physically manipulated out of the hall and across the street to the nearest bar. If I am going to keep track of benchmarks in live performances, that makes the list.

  • Putin is the rare world leader with close relationships with musicians. Too bad he’s a gangster. (Not that most leaders aren’t.) Besides Gergiev, there is Putin’s best friend, cellist Sergei Roldugin, a lead soloist at the Mariinsky theatre and rector of St Petersburg’s conservatory. According to the Panama Papers, Roldugin has spirited away millions (perhaps billions) for Putin to off shore accounts.

  • Anthony Sanderson says:

    His hair style seems reminiscent of the late Tommy Cooper, a British comedian.

  • Simon says:

    The whole article is political, your comparison is about nothing else. You praise and spit at the same time. Pathetic.

  • Graham says:

    For Gergiev I believe music will always come first

  • Anon says:

    Fascinating to see the a small sample of Russian social media subversion in action, support of Putin’s deeply mediocre pet.
    Gergiev’s always been mediocre at best, he merely has the financial clout to be allowed to conduct good orchestras.

  • John Kelly says:

    Let’s be honest – this is a very average performance. Try listening to Ozawa with the Chicago Symphony for a start (it’s on YT). A sacrificial dance which is genuinely frenzied (of course the orchestral playing is in a completely different league to that presented in the video under Gergiev). So many conductors do this so much better – Salonen has been mentioned but I would also mention MTT who does it wonderfully. Chailly anyone? Fabulous. I won’t bother but at least 30 conductors are vastly superior to this.

  • Ana says:

    I mostly agree with you, but this time I don’t. Gergiev is always the same, even better now, whether he is Putin’ s puppet or not. It’ s never a good idea to mix politics with art.

  • Angela Giblin says:

    Stunning. Such a seminal work. A dream of the coming nightmare 20th century? And a fascinating range of responses.

  • Сергей Полищук says:

    sounds like you are the puppet, norman