It felt at times this summer as if Shostakovich’s centenary celebrations had reached bursting point, so much so that when the day itself arrived most venues had already burnt themselves out.Valery Gergiev’s symphony cycle at the Barbican, however, has been carefully planned, split into three digestible parts.
Here its final set of three concerts paired a popular masterpiece, the Tenth, with one of the composer’s scarcely performed symphonies, the more obviously programmatic Twelfth.
The Tenth was cast anew, a revelation even for repertoire this familiar. Gergiev divided the symphony in two, pausing only to reflect on the massive emotional statement given by the opening Moderato. Here the intensity was all-embracing, with a number of half time personnel changes in the woodwind securing magical solos from clarinets, bassoons and oboe in particular.
From then on the subsequent three movements passed with barely a second of silence between them. The Scherzo flew by in the blink of an eye, Gergiev’s feet hardly touching the ground, and before we knew it the Allegretto had arrived, its densely autobiographical references spotlit but occasionally submerged beneath a substantial battery of percussion.
The finale inhabited an uncertain sound world to begin with, Gergiev and his players deliberately elusive even when the bluster of the Allegro proper took hold. Resisting the temptation to make this a purely virtuosic orchestral showpiece, Gergiev nonetheless pulled out all the stops with the whirlwind woodwind figurations and hammered motifs of D-S-C-H from the timpani that drove forward towards the close, a triumphant final flourish.
Triumph of a different kind lies at the heart of the Twelfth symphony, won with seemingly less musical effort. The work depicts Lenin’s arrival in Petrograd in 1917 and the subsequent events, and falls quickly under the spell of a single theme. Shostakovich’s style is less integrated than in the Tenth, and the music seems to hark back to the brash Second and Third symphonies or the early film scores.
Cellos and basses dictated the symphonic thought, though much of it centred on the obdurate theme. Gergiev, using a baton rather than his customary toothpick, secured a rather more perfunctory reading, the big statements impressive on the surface but left transparent, possibly as Shostakovich intended them to sound.
Once again the bassoons excelled in the slower music, though the woodwind solos here were by and large less effective. String sound, however, was not, and as the finale reached its blazing conclusion in the major key their complete unity was striking.
Gergiev conducted in his usual edgy manner here, but was a man possessed in the Tenth. Lacking a podium, he was on the same level as his orchestra, ensuring that both visually and aurally they spoke Shostakovichs language as one.