The Nose – Suite
Symphony No.1 in F minor, Op.10
The Gamblers [operatic fragment]
Ikharev – Mikhail Urusov
Shvokhnev – Sergey Aleksashkin
Krugel – Viacheslav Voynarovskiy
Uteshitelny – Sergei Leiferkus
Alexey – Mikhail Petrenko
Gavryushka – Vladimir Ognev
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 24 February, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Just a few weeks after his frequently impressive account of the Fourth Symphony, Vladimir Jurowski led the London Philharmonic in a programme that was devoted to Shostakovich – in which one staple of the modern orchestral repertory was framed by less familiar instances of his music for the stage.
Based on the final play by Gogol, “The Gamblers” was composed largely in 1941 but then abandoned the following year – Shostakovich’s decision to set the text word for word having drawn him into writing a potential epic whose performance in the wartime Soviet Union would have unthinkable. What remains is a 45-minute torso, taking in eight out of the 25 scenes and which pursues the starkly naturalistic word-setting of Mussorgsky (an orchestration of whose “Boris Godunov” Shostakovich had undertaken in 1940), that was not heard in public until Gennadi Rozhdestvensky conducted it in 1978. Although it has been completed (by Krysztof Meyer in 1983 and later recorded as such), the fragment makes perfect sense on its own terms: the card-game becoming a parable for the deception and counter-deception that not only informs but also motivates and determines all manner of human behaviour.
It might have made better sense to begin the concert with “The Gamblers”, as its incompleteness allied to its understatement leads to an inevitable sense of anti-climax in performance. Even so, the simple but effective staging by Irina Brown – the singers arrayed across the front of the platform alongside tables containing oversized packs of cards – generally held one’s attention, as well as pointing up the sardonic humour of the narrative. Louis Price’s designs were in keeping with its exaggerated nature, though Tim Mascall’s rather garish lighting made the overhead surtitles difficult to read.
The performance was a fine one. Mikhail Urusov was alive to the vainglorious quality that is Ikharev’s failing in his assessment of others – namely the motley triumvirate of Shvokhnev, suavely taken by Sergey Aleksashkin; Krugel, his wheedling insistence finely captured by Viacheslav Voynarovskiy; and Uteshitelny, whose heart-on-sleeve frankness dominates the closing stages and was sung by Sergei Leiferkus with no mean eloquence. Mikhail Petrenko was persuasive in the false heartiness as typifies Alexey, while Vladimir Ognev gave a characterful showing as the opportunist Gavryushka – his song with balalaika reprised by Rozhdestvensky to round off the fragment more effectively. Jurowski directed with a sure feel for Shostakovich’s inimitable orchestration, its combining of earthiness and sophistication a sure pointer to the idiom he was to explore more intensively during his final decade.
Contrast between this and the determinedly ‘left field’ provocation that typifies “The Nose” (1928) could not be greater. Although an advance trailer, the Suite gives a convincing resumé of the opera as a whole – especially when Jurowski unfolded its seven sections as an unbroken continuity, creating a dramatic momentum that overcame the non-chronological nature of the selection. As tellingly as Urusov and Leiferkus made their vocal contributions, it was the playing of the LPO that most often claimed the attention – not least in the near anarchy of the percussion-only interlude and the manic energy of the ‘Galop’ that follows it in Scene Three. Derived directly from the opera – with its ten percussionists as well as important parts for piano and balalaika – the Suite is unlikely to become a regular concert item, making such a well-realised opportunity to hear it such as this the more welcome.
Certainly Jurowski had the measure both of this and the First Symphony – neither underplaying its youthful recklessness nor overlooking its pointers to the composer’s maturity. Transitions between the ironic and explosive extremes of the first movement were adroitly handled, with the contrasts of angularity and mystery in the scherzo equally well coordinated. The plangent quality of the Lento was conveyed without affectation (and with some superb woodwind playing), while the lead-in to the finale was expertly rendered. If a degree of blatancy crept into the climactic stages, this was necessary to reconcile the disparate musical elements: certainly there was no lack of cumulative intensity as the movement arrives at its decisive but never bombastic coda. London has heard some excellent performances of this work over recent years, and this was among the finest.