In the hands of Valery Gergiev, the festival's honorary president, Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky made for one of the best opening concerts we've had for a while. It was an all Prokofiev programme and this is sure ground for Gergiev, who has made a good survey of the symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra (and, indeed, played them at the festival a few years back). Last night they began with his third piano concerto. The solo part was taken by the very young Daniil Trifonov who played superbly, bringing both great virtuosity but also no shortage of subtlety when needed. This was even truer of his encore, from Nikolai Medtner's Fairy Tales op.51, no.2, which was beautifully poetic.
In the last two years, we have been treated to works that would charitably be described as damp squibs (Schumann's Das Paradies und die Peri in 2011 and Delius's A Mass of Life last year). Neither has anything close to the sort of energy raising potential needed to set the mood for three weeks of festivities. Fortunately the cantata made up of around forty minutes of music from Eisenstein's film most certainly does.
It helped that Gergiev was able to draw the very best from the RSNO (an orchestra he hasn't worked with since 1988 and then only briefly). This was comfortably the finest I've heard them in a little while, certainly since Deneve departed. There was precision to the playing, with Gergiev finding wonderful details everywhere and, more importantly, creating the sort of drama that meant you didn't miss the pictures. It's a shame that Peter Oundjian isn't able to achieve this sort of result. Mezzo Yulia Matochkina was especially fine, both in voice and also in the compelling stage presence she brought to The Field of the Dead. Gergiev hit the big climaxes, such as during The Battle on the Ice with a suitable orchestral sledgehammer, perhaps not quite the right metaphor for someone who conducts with the tips of his fingers but that was the effect. His mastery of these contrasts was particularly impressive.
The only quibble would be that the festival chorus, while they did a creditable job, didn't have quite the epic Russian male voice choir feel that the score ideally wanted in places. Still, that was not enough to detract significantly from what was a great start to this year's festival.