Valery Gergiev's energy puts others in the shade. See for yourself as the conductor begins his ambitious Festival residency
AN uneasy hush descends on St Paul's Cathedral. The London Symphony Orchestra is arrayed across the transept with choirs assembled behind it ready to perform Mahler's 8th Symphony, one of the biggest undertakings in the classical repertoire.
We've already applauded the leader of the orchestra. But where is the conductor, Valery Gergiev, the prodigious talent with the reputation for lateness, a man so busy he is once said to have conducted three orchestras in three countries on the same day? The musicians exchange glances, the audience holds its collective breath.
Then, a fraction of an instant before it's too late, the maestro is walking swiftly to the podium. Acknowledging the sell-out crowd with a curt bow from the chest, he turns his back, raises his arms.
For the next 90 minutes we will be mesmerised by those arms, the rolling shoulders, the rippling fingers, the hands describing great circles in the air or plucking at it as delicately as embroidery. When a soloist is singing, their eyes lock with his as if he were drawing the music from their throats one note at a time. The vast unwieldy company is acting as a single instrument, and Gergiev is the musician.
This is the second time he's conducted this immense work in less than a month. In 24 hours' time, he will have done it three times. Twenty-four hours after that, he'll be back in St Petersburg at the Mariinsky (formerly the Kirov), where he is artistic director (he was born in Moscow and raised in Ossetia – whose current troubles are still far off when we speak). In the next week, he'll conduct Verdi's La Forza del Destino, The Enchanted Wanderer, a recent composition by Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin, Sibelius, Ravel and a premiere of Karol Szymanowski's Krol Roger.
He will bring that to the Edinburgh International Festival performed by the Mariinsky company, along with the Shchedrin and operatic works by Sergei Prokofiev and Rachmaninov. With the LSO, he will conduct all seven Prokofiev symphonies. Securing him as a resident conductor is a major coup for festival director Jonathan Mills. Given his other commitments, it's a coup to pin him down at all.
I pin down Gergiev at his hotel near St Paul's the morning after the Mahler concert. I wait in the lobby for half an hour as plans are changed and improvised, and the maestro juggles phone calls and faxes. Around Gergiev, people learn patience.
He is not a big man, yet the little sitting room of the hotel suite is too small for him. He is in his shirt sleeves, a caged whirlwind of energy. A fax in Russian lies on the table, both his mobile and the hotel room phone ring constantly, yet he seems to relish having something to focus on. Last night it was a couple of hundred assembled musicians. Today it's me.
I ask him how he does it: one night Mahler, the next Verdi, Shchedrin, Sibelius, Szymanowski. He speaks English well, but throatily, taking time to think of the right word of phrase. "A few days from now Mahler is over. I promised no Mahler for the next few weeks. I will focus on Szymanowski and Shchedrin for sure.
"I don't ask a soccer player how he does it, that he scores on the 89th minute. It's a question of professionalism. Sometimes you are able to do your best in the last minute for your country, for your club. It's the same with us (conductors], I think. It's a little bit physical and intellectual. It's mentally very exhausting and challenging, but that's the way we are trained."
Gergiev's style of conducting is known for its intensity. He takes hair-raising risks which sometimes fall flat, but succeed often enough and brilliantly enough to have him hailed as a visionary. At 53, he is one of the finest conductors in the world, with a staggering array of appointments: principal conductor of the LSO, principal guest conductor at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and the Rotterdam Philharmonic, a long-standing agreement with the legendary Vienna Philharmonic.
That's where he should be this August, but he's in Edinburgh instead. "It's the first time I'm going to skip Salzburg in 12 years. But I felt that Jonathan (Mills] had a very special interest in Prokofiev and then we started to talk about the opera programme and it was clear it was more and more interesting."
What clinched it, he says, was the chance to perform Shchedrin's Enchanted Wanderer, an opera premiered just six years ago, and as yet unheard in Britain. In the two decades that he has run the Mariinsky, Gergiev has won worldwide respect for performing the great traditional Russian repertoire. Now, he is emphasising their commitment to new work.
"Seventy per cent of Russian musical history was written on the stage of the Mariinsky: Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, most of their glorious hours. This is an incredible opportunity for us to – how to say? – continue to write the history of the Mariinksy. It's my duty and obligation to perform wonderful operas written by living composers."
Gergiev's conversation turns again and again to the Mariinsky, where he was elected "almost unanimously" to the post of artistic director at the age of 34. He shepherded the company through the tumultuous post- Soviet years, re-forging its reputation both at home and on the world's most prestigious concert stages.
He talks about it as might a proud parent of a high-achieving child. "Our Ring was re-invited three times to Germany. It was the biggest opera house in the country and it was sold out."
His work at the Mariinsky proves he is not just a gifted conductor but a genius administrator and fundraiser. The company recently opened a new 1,100-seater concert hall with a price-tag of 20 million, two-thirds raised from private donations. Gergiev speaks of Vladimir Putin as a friend: they are godfathers to one another's children.
He is often asked why he doesn't leave Russia and relocate to New York or London or Vienna. After 45 minutes in Gergiev's company, I almost don't need to ask. Russia is in his blood.
"I never thought of leaving the city (St Petersburg], leaving Mariinsky. I never felt St Petersburg was not big enough, or rich enough. It was actually a very, very poor city, but if you talk about spiritual, about something you cannot buy, it will never stop being a very, very important cultural centre." His mobile rings and he barks into it in Russian for a minute. "Sorry, I have to answer, I wait for news about my flight."
His decision to perform the Prokofiev cycle in Edinburgh is part of a continued mission to promote Russian music worldwide. Prokofiev's oeuvre, in particular, is in need of a boost, beyond his famous Romeo & Juliet ballet score. "It deserves to be famous, it may be one of the best scores ever written for ballet. But when you perform the 4th Symphony, or even the 6th Symphony, you realise that maybe 80 per cent of the audience never heard this symphony before.
"People might find it a bit frightening, because this is the strongest revolution in 20th-century musical history. But at some point, people will accept these unusual compositions, then they will become big favourites."
One of the reasons Prokofiev needs rehabilitating is that history has not always been kind to him. Returning to work in Russia during the Stalinist years, he has been viewed, especially in the West, as an artist who made political and artistic compromises in order to be allowed to make music in peace. His contemporary, Shostakovich, whose music feels more troubled, has been more highly praised.
"(Prokofiev] was a very brilliant man. I don't think he cared so much about the political climate, but he was able to focus on his music. But you cannot accuse him of being a man who is trying to please Stalin.
"I think his 5th and 6th symphonies are to be taken as war symphonies. They are more optimistic than Shostakovich, yet dramatic enough, and very, very serious. It's not a flirt with a historical event. He was, deep in his heart, a very Russian artist, he couldn't stay away from the troubles."
Ah, yes, the Russian soul. The Enchanted Wanderer is based on a novella by Nikolai Leskov which has been described as "a vision of the Russian soul". Does Gergiev agree? "There is a thing which you cannot describe but you know it is very strong. You cannot explain Russia. You can love it or you can hate it, but you cannot explain it, you just have to believe in it."
He is on his feet. It's time to go. Down in the hotel bar, the maestro's next appointment is waiting, wearing the same nervous expression that many seem to wear around Gergiev. And upstairs, a man with a very Russian soul is waiting for confirmation of the flight that will take him back to St Petersburg.
• Gergiev's residency at the EIF begins tonight, when he conducts the LSO in Prokofiev's Symphonies 1, 2 and 3 at the Usher Hall. For other concerts, see www.eif.co.uk