The Mariinsky Theater Orchestra of St. Petersburg, known as the Kirov Theater Orchestra during Communist rule, is one of Russia's oldest orchestras; its history in many respects is that of Russian music itself.
In recent years, the orchestra has made acclaimed symphonic recordings in addition to accompanying opera and ballet.
The Mariinsky Theater Orchestra traces its history back to the establishment of a Russian Imperial Court orchestra in 1729; by the order of Empress Catherine the Great, the Bolshoi Kamennii Teatr or Big Stone Theater opened in 1783, with a resident orchestra in place. The Mariinsky Theater replaced this structure in 1860. By that time, the orchestra was already a fabled ensemble; Catherine spent lavishly on imported opera, and when Russian composers led by Mikhail Glinka began to develop a native operatic tradition in the 1830s, the orchestra was integral to the new music. Under the musical leadership of Edward Nápravník, who began at the Mariiinsky as an assistant conductor in 1863, the theater and its orchestra were at the center of Russian operatic life. Nápravník led premieres of all of Tchaikovsky's operas, many of Rimsky-Korsakov's, and Modest Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina. Nor did he restrict himself to Russian repertory; Wagner's Ring cycle of four operas was played at the Mariinsky in the late 19th century, becoming one of the first houses outside Germany to program the giant tetralogy. The orchestra also accompanied ballet productions, performing the premieres of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty, among many other works.
After the Russian Revolution, the orchestra was maintained as a showcase for Russian music. The Mariinsky Theater was renamed the State Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet, and renamed again as the Kirov Theater in 1935 as Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had local party leader S.M. Kirov killed but then attempted to cover up the assassination. The Kirov and its orchestra continued to present opera and ballet for part of World War II but was evacuated to the city of Molotov (now Perm) in 1943. It was under the Kirov name that the opera and ballet companies, with the orchestral players, gave their first concerts in the West, winning considerable renown in the 1950s. The orchestra has flourished especially under the batons of Yuri Temirkanov (1976-1988) and his student Valery Gergiev (1988-), and the orchestra has begun to make a significant impression independently of the opera and ballet companies, which reverted to the Mariinsky name in 1992.
The orchestra made numerous ballet recordings for the Dutch label Philips and Britain's Decca in the 1990s and early 2000s, and then, following similar in-house organs in the West, a Mariinsky label was formed, releasing a recording of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 10, and Symphony No. 15 in A minor, Op. 141, with Gergiev conducting. Gergiev has emphasized the performance and recording of symphonic repertory. In 2019, the Mariinsky Orchestra under Gergiev issued a recording of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 ("Pathétique").