Valery Gergiev conducts in Red Square, Moscow in a concert for the 2018 World Cup in Russia

Can Putin’s conductor redeem himself?

Valery Gergiev is a propagandist for the Putin regime — but he is not all bad

On Music

This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I knew Valery Gergiev as a creature of the night. While others crashed out, he talked until dawn. Once, in Rotterdam, we listened to a pair of young pianists he had flown over to play the four-hand version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Afterwards, with window panes still rattling, he visited the two kids in their green room, then sat down and played the whole thing again, two-handed from memory on a backstage upright.

We went on to dinner with a bottle of vodka, then for a walk around town while he tried to convince me that Prokofiev was more “important” than the overpraised Stravinsky. Much of his argument was undigested Soviet propaganda — that Prokofiev wrote his best work after returning to Russia in the mid-1930s while his rival was constipated in the decadent West. Never mind that Lena Prokofiev was sent to Siberia and her ex was reduced to a quivering wreck in Stalin’s Second Terror. “He survived,” shrugged Gergiev.

It was impossible not to admire his energy, musicality and unbelievable resourcefulness

In an outlying suburb, I realised we were hopelessly lost. “I know the way in Rotterdam across the road, from the hotel to the concert hall and back,” said Gergiev, unbothered. The sun was rising as we got back. “Any faxes for me?” he demanded at Reception. Rotterdam was his first foreign job. He learned no Dutch and outraged musicians by missing rehearsals, but he had a strong fan club and the city put on a Gergiev festival every autumn until — well, you know the end.

I first met him in St Petersburg where he was reviving The Fiery Angel at the Mariinsky, an opera long banned for its atonalities and sexual depravity. Gergiev considered it a modernist masterpiece, equivalent to Wozzeck and Lulu. Before my flight home he sent round a limo and locked me in conversation in his office until two in the morning. Outside, a pair of filmmakers awaited their turn.

Vladimir Putin (R) and Gergiev (L) at the Grand Kremlin Palace on 12 June 2016

It was impossible not to admire his energy, musicality and unbelievable resourcefulness in keeping opera and ballet alive in the crumbling Russian empire. His sister Larissa worked for him as a rehearsal pianist. His mother, he told me, would find him a bride back in North Ossetia when he was ready to procreate. 

Ethnicity aside, his family knew how to work the Soviet system. An uncle who designed tanks for Stalin placed Gergiev with the elusive Professor Ilya Musin at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatoire.

It was from Gergiev’s lips that I first heard the name Vladimir Putin. 

Gergiev kept the Mariinsky’s earnings in a Russian bank which, like many in the 1990s, went bust. Penniless, he turned to Putin, the city’s deputy mayor, who covered the wage bill. Later, as president, Putin gave Gergiev the national monopoly for selling turkey meat, turning him into a minigarch with a private jet and, reportedly, a Putin-like palace in the Caucasus. Those two, Putin and Gergiev, go back a long way.

I met him through a Finnish friend, the critic Seppo Heikinheimo, the best judge of baton talent I ever knew. Seppo set up a festival for Gergiev in the middle of Finland and spent a cheery Sunday with me scouting sites where Valery could build himself a dacha. 

Today’s Gergiev is a notorious propagandist for the Putin regime

There was a fourteenth-century sauna nearby. Gergiev and I spent a white night there with his best friend, the pianist Denis Matsuev. There was something immature about them, part Boys Own, part Boyzone. Matsuev said he planned to build Gergiev a concert hall in his Siberian home town of Irkutsk, a stopover for him on tours to China and Japan. Putin, needless to say, would pay for it. 

There are not many places in a Finnish sauna to keep secrets and I got to know Gergiev pretty well. Down the years he would object to something I had written and contact was lost, only to be renewed at his whim. 

After the 2004 school massacre in Beslan, North Ossetia, Gergiev phoned me to say he was changing that night’s Vienna Philharmonic concert to include Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony, giving a performance many in the orchestra still cherish. Rich and remote as he grew, the human dimension was always paramount.

Our mutual friend Seppo suffered from depression. One evening on his balcony, preparing to jump, Seppo was switching off his cellphone when Gergiev rang and talked him down. The next time I saw Gergiev was at a cast dinner after a bleak Verdi Macbeth at Covent Garden. I waited for him to speak. He looked at me and said, “Seppo”. Our friend had tragically succeeded at his next attempt.

Today’s Gergiev, nearing 70, is a notorious propagandist for the Putin regime, ally of a war criminal, banned in most countries of the world. I shall not miss his conducting because his concerts are all too often unrehearsed, wayward and perfunctory, displaying contempt for the public and for the music he professes to serve. Not long ago, Gergiev conducted in Moscow in the morning and at Carnegie Hall the same night. You can do that with a private jet, perhaps on a bet with Matsuev, but this is not the act of an artist. Gergiev sold out long ago to notions of power.

That said, I do not like boycotts. The reason I am sharing these personal memories is to show that within a proscribed artist there is still a person with a unique gift who may yet have the capacity to redeem himself, and his audience, through art. There was always some good in the Valery Gergiev I knew. I hope he, and we, can find it again.

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