Several times during this concert I had to shake my head in astonishment at the level of expression achieved by Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra in one of the most emotional of symphonic masterpieces. As if Saturday’s performance of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony hadn’t overwhelmed us quite enough for one weekend, Gergiev drove his mighty team into a whole new stratosphere of excitement with an immaculate reading of the Leningrad Symphony, and it was undoubtedly a privilege to be there.
Andrew Huth’s programme note talks about ‘the whole weight of Russia’s tragedy’ in connection with some of the earlier pieces of music that were played in the concert, and the phrase might aptly be applied to Gergiev’s general approach to performing the music of his homeland.
There is never a shred of doubt about this now legendary conductor’s motivation for engaging with these works so frequently: he is on a mission to bring the sadly neglected cultural treasures of Russia to the world’s attention, and with them, the suffering and heartache of that sad country’s history.
When it was premiered in 1942, Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony was widely applauded for its apparent depiction of the siege of Leningrad by the Nazis between June 1941 and February 1943, which resulted in the death of perhaps a million people. Certainly the composer was keen to promote this view of the symphony’s programme, and it was soon broadcast as an anti-Nazi statement on radio in Russia, in London by Sir Henry Wood, and in New York by Toscanini.
Years later, the composer suggested that the first movement in fact depicted the Russia of Stalin’s terror, referring to ‘other enemies of humanity’ than the Nazis. The inimitability of Gergiev’s interpretation was the way he cut through all this speculation about the work’s extramusical meaning, concentrating instead on conjuring up the pain of the people of Russia regardless of the specific cause.
The first movement was given a chilling, icy performance, pointing to the perennial theme of Russia’s long, cold winters. The stirring opening found the violin players absolutely pinned to their finger-boards, drawing out the biggest possible tone for the terrifying martial music. Unexpected contrast came from the piccolo in the pastoral-type music, but the main event was the nightmare of the central section.
Here the side drum and pizzicato strings played their simple rhythm barely audibly at first; a flawless solo from the flute carries the main theme. The latter is taken up by the whole of the orchestra, and under Gergiev the LSO made it feel as if it were the audience, not Leningrad, being invaded. The fear induced by the obsessional nature of the theme’s persistence gave way to poignancy in the return to the opening pastoral music, which here confirmed the composer’s view of it as a ‘requiem’ after the central onslaught.
Memories, the title of the second movement, once more started with relative serenity, but the teamwork of the orchestra helped to increase tension once more in the contrapuntal textures of the central section. The winds gave the third movement a tear-jerking agony, whilst the strings responded with a thrill to the almost fugal passage at the climax of the finale.
In the first half of the concert we were treated to vivid performances of the Dance of the Persian Girls and the preludes to the first and fourth acts of Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina in Shostakovich’s biting orchestration. The depiction of dawn on the Moscow River at the opera’s start found the LSO already warmed-up and raring to go, the high string tremolandi, harp chords and fluid wind themes all contributing to the picture. The Prelude to Act IV was appropriately sombre for music evoking Prince Golitsyn’s ruin, and the short ballet music was murky and mysterious thanks not least to the fine cor anglais solo and solid trombone section.
Can there be any doubt that this Shostakovich Symphony Cycle will go down in history as one of the most authoritative ever heard? The saga continues at the Barbican in 2006, but for those who can’t wait until then, at least there is Gergiev’s new recording of the Shostakovich Symphonies Nos. 4-9 to savour.