LSO/Gergiev Shostakovich 1 & 14

Symphony No.1 in F minor, Op.10
Symphony No.14, Op.135

Olga Sergeeva (soprano)
Sergey Alexashkin (bass)

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 13 April, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Valery Gergiev’s Barbican Shostakovich symphony cycle continued here with a none-too-logical coupling of his first and penultimate symphonies. Hard to fit in elsewhere in the cycle, does Gergiev sense a conceptual or musical affinity between them? If so, it was not apparent on this occasion – which is not to deny either Gergiev’s commitment to the works or the qualities of each performance.

Less so, perhaps, that of the First Symphony (1925), which received a charged but over-wrought reading that cohered as much through luck – and the quality of the LSO’s playing – as of judgement. The opening movement – a masterly (and intuitive?) rethink of sonata form that no doubt raised a few eyebrows at the Petrograd Conservatoire when the score was circulated – was too impetuous for its unorthodox but effective placing of tension fully to register, while in the scherzo, uniformly swift pacing of its contrasting themes left their antagonisms barely resolved by the fragmented coda.

The Lento was distinguished by plangent contributions from woodwinds, and a finely-poised solo from leader Carmine Lauri in the reprise – but a rather heavy-handed pathos, and a tendency to point-up dynamic extremes, left it with insufficient repose. This anxiety meant Gergiev had too little room to manoeuvre when it came to the finale – forcing him to characterise each section such that it cancelled out rather than prepared for those to follow. Further impressive solo work, not least from Moray Welsh (how fortunate to have so attuned a cellist for this cycle), but the tone of the coda was more one of relief at having made it to the end rather than defiance from coming through against the odds.

Pairing these works at least ensured a striking visual image after the interval, with the orchestra reduced to nineteen strings and three percussionists for the Fourteenth Symphony (1969). Ironic that a work to have received more plaudits than any other in the cycle (apart from the Tenth) is a symphony more through designation than by design – though the symphonic song-cycle is a genre that Shostakovich endowed with a clarity and cohesiveness which not even Mahler quite attained.

And clarity and cohesion were qualities well to the fore in Gergiev’s taut reading – the often-stark sub-divisions of the strings rendered with needle-sharp precision, and the percussion integrated into the instrumental fabric so that it achieved far more than just being a gloss on textual imagery. If he does not evince quite the gravity of several previous exponents, Sergey Alexashkin had a fatalism right for the numbed emotion of ‘Deprofundis’ and the bitter resignation of ‘In Prison’ (Gergiev’s discerning sensitivity to timbral nuance much in evidence), with the admonishments in ‘Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks’ vividly delivered and the yearning of ‘O Delvig, Delvig!’ the more affecting for its restraint.

Olga Sergeeva was a touch reticent in ‘Malagueña’ – not helped by Gergiev adopting too stolid a tempo – but had a desolate purity ideal for ‘The Suicide’ and nonchalance equally appropriate for ‘On Watch’. If the play on phonetics of ‘Madam, look’ was a little smoothed out, her blanched tone in ‘Death of the Poet’ did not preclude word-painting of some insight.

Both singers were fully responsive to Gergiev’s cumulative building of tension over the eventful dialogue of ‘Loreley’, with the stark but somehow cathartic message of Death’s omnipresence in ‘Conclusion’ unsparing in its directness and resolve.

If there was a feeling so claustrophobic a work was not ideally suited to the relative expanse of the Barbican, the keen intensity of the performance went a long way to overcoming it. The successful placing of this symphonic hybrid within the cycle as a whole, however, must await a further occasion.

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