Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra Cultural Centre Concert Hall March 27, 28, 2010 The curtain fell on the 38th Hong Kong Arts Festival last night with the second of two programmes featuring Valery Gergiev and members of the Mariinsky Theatre's symphony orchestra and opera company. The Arts Festival has been generous in rolling out large symphonic forces: the Hong Kong Philharmonic and London's Philharmonia Orchestra already set the bar high this year, both in interpretation and quality of sound. Gergiev's modest complement of 48 strings hobbled the section's overall potential, and while the ear gradually accommodated the orchestra's raw woodwind sound, the imbalance between the parts often niggled. There's nothing like hearing Russian music played by natives, however. They were probably humming the tunes in their baby-strollers, but a foray into German repertoire on Saturday tested the musicians. A concert performance of Act 3 from Wagner's opera Die Walkure opened by pinning us to the wall with meaty vocals from a splendid line-up of eight Valkyries - warrior daughters of the chief-god Wotan - and Sieglinde (radiantly sung by soprano Yekaterina Shimanovich), distraught, pregnant and fleeing Wotan's fury. The spotlight falls on Wotan (Alexei Tanovitsky, bass) and Brunnhilde (Olga Savova, mezzo soprano), the errant ninth Valkyrie, as they tackle their intractable differences. Savova showed hairline cracks in her upper register early on; Tanovitsky's voice was similarly blighted, eventually becoming completely distressed well before the end. Both singers' diction in the German text was weak; vivid lines were often vocally colourless. The orchestra accompanied reliably but kept its head too low when given the role of protagonist. Last night's all-Russian programme ended with Shostakovich's substantial Symphony No 7, Leningrad, a work that calls for considerable reserves - physically for the players, conceptually for the conductor. For a work encompassing Hitler, Stalin, war and totalitarianism, shock and awe aren't out of place. There were indeed awesome sounds from the brass, but Gergiev's reading did little to shock us into a new appreciation of the work.