The culmination of Valery Gergiev’s Shostakovich symphony cycle at the Barbican saw a fire and brimstone performance of one of the composer’s biggest works in the form, the Eleventh.
That the conductor held the score in the air at the end rather than giving an inappropriate encore was a measure of the music’s impact, realised in a performance of raw power and emotion.
And that was just the conductor for at some points Gergiev seemed to be playing the strings himself as he wrung the last ounce of feeling from their bows.
Every inch the Russian maestro, he was purple in the face by the finale, throwing himself into every note.
The Mariinsky orchestra was superb, and followed the conductor’s bristling arms with unerring accuracy. The Palace Square of St. Petersburg depicted in the symphony’s opening was appropriately icy, but later on chilled to the very bone, the marching crowd of peaceful protestors abruptly cut short. Whether furiously loud or muffled in near silence the percussion were superb, and a huge pair of bells tolled as the closing pages blazed.
The tension depicted by Shostakovich as the crowds arrived was palpable throughout a carefully paced opening movement, Gergiev speeding up only for the flute entry of the folksong ‘Listen’. This only heightened the contrast as the Ninth of January Allegro went hell for leather, with swirling strings and piercing principal trumpet, who was outstanding throughout the evening.
A truly desolate Adagio followed the massacre, but rebuilt steadily until the full power of the Finale was wrought upon us. I don’t recall hearing an orchestra play so loudly in the Barbican before, but the Mariinsky were never reckless in achieving this, nor did their expression suffer at the hands of volume.
The first half was a different musical story, Shostakovich in his early twenties still under the grip of a recent encounter with Berg’s Wozzeck. The melodic language proves far less accessible in a symphony that rarely touches the ground, heading inexorably for a big choral hymn in praise of the October revolution. This was preceded by an authentic factory horn, sounded from the back of the stage, an invitation the Mariinsky chorus took up, Gergiev bringing them in with a flourish.
With a vivid contrast between early, crowd pleasing pomp and later, double-edged symphonic writing, the pairing made an ideal concert the Eleventh in particular a performance that will stay with me for some time to come. No wonder half the audience was on its feet – as a tribute to Shostakovich in his centenary year, you couldn’t have asked for more.