Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Shostakovich: Symphony No 1, Symphony No 14: LSO/Gergiev @ Barbican Hall, London

13 April 2006

Shostakovich’s graduation work, his First Symphony in F minor Op. 10, was written when the composer was at the tender age of 20. The London Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Russian maestro Valery Gergiev (their new Principal Conductor from next January), must have had this in mind when performing the first movement.

Almost playful tempo fluctuations and a certain innocence characterized Gergiev’s reading of this music, which was highly effective. The conclusion of the first movement, which is an anti-climatic pizzicato in the lower strings, was particularly well executed, not least because it was pervaded by an elegant simplicity.

However, the second and third movements took on a darker interpretation. The long oboe solo in the second movement was done with incredible dexterity, almost comparable to the Strauss Oboe Concerto in terms of difficulty. Equally impressive was the way Gergiev brought out the difference of character between individual themes an alternating fairytale/movie music mode with the darker colour of Russian reality.

The Finale of the first symphony was also striking. The combination of Gergiev and the LSO resulted in a blend of Russian yearning and British rigour. Long lines in the strings, an immense timpani solo, and the sturdy brass entries were several notable facets of this strong performance.

After the interval, it was Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony, which is about the inevitability of death rather an appropriate choice for the night before Good Friday.

Consisting of eleven poems sung by soprano and bass, the symphony started the first poem with a nerve-wracking quiet in the strings, an extraordinary dark sound that was an evident indication of Gergiev’s masterly control.

Over the next few poems, the singers were accompanied by various combinations of instruments in the orchestra. The conductors keen vision of the mourning soul of Russia lying deep in this music was conveyed in a focused, at times depressing rendition of the work.

Gergiev’s focus also carried over to the singers controlled expressivity. Bass singer Sergey Alexashkin kept the width of his vibrato to a minimum and very slow, producing an almost flat sound that maintained the solemn morbidity. And soprano Olga Sergeeva, with her wide and intense vibrato at the higher registers, generated the impression of the terror of death.

An exchange particularly worthy of mention was the episode between the Bishop and the Beautiful Witch in the Third Poem, which ended with the excellent percussionist on the tolling bells. The orchestra also played the Fifth Poem setting with skill, a kind of ironic military march reminiscent of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony.

The entire symphony ended with the male and female voices singing together about the inevitability of death and how death is among us laughing a sardonic sentiment that was also at the heart of Gergiev’s reading.

In all, an excellent concert that revealed a special bond between orchestra and conductor – all bodes well for their future collaborations next spring.

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