Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Valery Gergiev – Shostakovich: Symphonies 4-9


With the centenary of Shostakovich’s birth nearly upon us, Valery Gergiev will be the focus of the commemorations for many, the start of his Barbican cycle coinciding neatly with this release.

However it should be pointed out that none of these recordings are recent enough to qualify as new – the most recent, the Fifth, dates from 2002, while the Eighth is eleven years old.

No matter, for as modern interpretations go, these are up there with the best, whilst not always reaching the white hot intensity of past classics from Evgeni Mravinsky and Kirill Kondrashin.

Three years ago Gergiev turned in a searing Proms performance of the Fourth with his Kirov forces, and the Philips recording goes some way to recapturing the intensity of that concert, a real sense of drama in evidence. Gergiev sets a cracking tempo in the second movement, with the tuttis shattering in volume (and occasional distortion). He revels in the grotesque, skeletal percussion of the third movement, and the end, one ofthe most affecting in all Shostakovich, is still, yet restless and unresolved.

Gergiev’s biggest success is the Sixth, a lithe performance of a work that deserves a higher profile in Shostakovich’s symphonic output. Here the conductor takes a broad view of the opening, a reedy texture proclaiming the expansive theme. Moments of exquisite stillness accompany the flute meditations in the first movement, a complete contrast to the eruptions of strings and timpani later on. The Kirov are on top form, the only absent feature being audience noise at the end, as on all these live recordings.

The Fifth and Leningrad symphonies, two of the composer’s most popular in the concert hall and on disc, are both well served in vivid performances. The sheer volume of the latter, with Gergiev conducting the combined Rotterdam and Kirov forces, is fearsome. And yet the conductor doesn’t overuse the power at his disposal, building the first movement’s inexorable march with expert pacing.

The Fifth is excellent, cellos thumping out the Scherzo’s first bars, with a brisk finale that refuses to lapse into empty triumphalism, cutting off almost too quickly at the end. The searching slow movement, too, is a thing of rare beauty.

The Eighth is less successful in its lack of ensemble – for instance with the very first note, a hazard of the live recording. Elsewhere it fares well though, the thumping scherzo hammering home its point and the finale remarkably peaceful at start and finish, despite what happens in between.

Which leaves the Ninth, Gergiev revealing many good things from the intimate textures but surely too slow in the first movement, missing several opportunities to highlight the humour so readily taken up by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, among others.

These are minor issues, however, that fail to mar what is essentially a high quality collection. The music of Shostakovich clearly runs in Valery Gergiev’s blood – he understands its sentiment, its gestures. If the remainder of the fifteen make it on to disc by the close of next year, they will have completed the 21st century’s first important recorded cycle of these wonderful and penetrating works.

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