LSO/Gergiev – Shostakovich Double

Saturday 15 October 2005

Schumann, orch. Shostakovich
Cello Concerto in A minor, Op.129
Symphony No.8 in C minor, Op.65

Sunday 16 October 2005

Mussorgsky, orch. Shostakovich
Khovanshchina – Preludes to Acts One and Four; Dance of the Persian Slaves
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.60 (Leningrad)

Johannes Moser (cello)

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 16 October, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The appointment of Valery Gergiev as the London Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Conductor from January 2007 is nothing if not provocative – bearing in mind that last year’s Prokofiev cycle had ranged from the shambolic to the inspired, often in the same concert.

Over the next eighteen months, Gergiev is directing the LSO (along with three other orchestras) in a cycle of Shostakovich symphonies, and it will be fascinating to hear this most impulsive of present-day maestros tackling what has been called perhaps the last great outcrop of the classical repertoire. Two of the most monumental symphonies began the project. Gergiev’s recordings of both works disappointed, and the fact that these accounts were that more convincing says much for the rapport he has already developed with the LSO – as well as a deepened understanding of their idiosyncratic, though symphonic logic that is itself evolving from one performance to the next.

The Eighth Symphony was treated to a spacious but (at 63 minutes) not overly expansive reading – initiated by a charged account of the long opening Adagio that, following a rhythmically slightly stiff first theme, opened out eloquently into its successor and then built powerfully towards the climactic central development. Ruthless but never merely brutal, this led inevitably to a reprise of the main theme, where a skilful handling of dynamics ensured intensity to spare for the cor anglais solo that isthe movement’s inwardly emotional highpoint. The coda, too, was impressively judged in the way that the main theme dissolves into harmonies whose blurred outline ensures a decidedly equivocal ending.

Gergiev could have pointed up the conceptual contrast between the two following scherzos a little more decisively. While the Allegretto had the required caustic wit and grim humour, the succeeding Allegro could have evinced greater mechanistic violence – not helped in the trio by an almost unaccented rendering of the trumpet theme which made it inappropriately jaunty. Yet the explosion launching the fourth movement was unsparing in its impact, and Gergiev ensured that the passacaglia which then develops maintained momentum simply by keeping to the same unyielding pulse – with the ‘theme’ itself always audible behind the monochrome shade of each variant. The finale was taken up almost apologetically – fine, except that the prevailing hesitancy, while underlining the music’s ambiguity, left it short of the impetus to make the return of the first movement’s climax feel inevitable in context. The tapering-off that ensues was finely done, allowing a fatalistic calm to register fully at the symphony’s close.

A flawed but impressive reading, then, whereas the Seventh Symphony was very nearly a triumph from start to finish. The new-found popularity that this work has enjoyed during the last two decades can disguise the difficulty of presenting it as a fully ‘achieved’ entity: something of which Gergiev now seems patently aware – with his long-breathed (79-minute) yet tautly-argued approach enabling the symphony to cohere more powerfully and, in so doing, transcend any consideration of time and place.

Not that he did this always by taking the music at face value. Robust and poetic by turns, the opening Allegretto (the programme’s designation of each movement merely by the descriptive title that the composer withdrew was unfortunate) eased its way into the infamous ‘war machine’ episode whose rapidity evoked not the marching of soldiers, but rather a spreading emotional contagion sufficient to make the movement’s later stages a haunted revisiting of old memories rather than a parody pure if not so simple. Finely controlled as was its central irruption, the first pensive, then aching recollection of its main themes rightly placed the emotional emphasis at the point of greatest, and seeming, repose.

An aggressively martial central span aside, Gergiev’s way with the Moderato brought out its gentle pathos – with woodwind playing of limpid poignancy – while ignoring its ‘poco allegretto’ marking and not making it integral to the piece in quite the way needed. By contrast, the urgency of the wind and string chorales that begin the Adagio was pursued in the lilting gait of its second theme; any Mahlerian overtones were kept in reserve until a central climax which was properly resolute, at least until the heightened return of the wind chorale goaded Gergiev into holding back the tempo unduly and impeding momentum just when it needs to run freely. The movement then progressed through a spellbinding transition into the finale, arriving hazily at its Allegro non troppo marking and a powerful surge of intent. Too many performances fall away in the bleak central elegy, but Gergiev admirably maintained consistency of pulse throughout the gradual ascent to a coda which, capped by a commanding but by no means bombastic recall of the opening theme, rounded off the symphony with thrilling defiance.

Such symphonic intensity needed to be offset by a careful understatement prior to the respective intervals. The second concert had a brief selection from Mussorgsky’s “Khovanshchina” – heard in Shostakovich’s trenchant orchestration from 1958, imparting chill anticipation to the Act One Prelude and implacablestoicism to that preceding Act Four. Heard in this guise, the Dance of the Persian Slaves takes on an insinuating unease that makes palpable the murder to come.

There was also a rare chance to hear Schumann’s Cello Concerto in Shostakovich’s 1963 orchestration: one which makes the outermovements sound Dvořákian through its pert woodwind interjections, and emphasises the Romanza’s Mendelssohnian leanings via the ‘song without words’ presence of harp. A highly resourceful rendering with which the eloquent Johannes Moser seemed wholly at ease, though the intimate ruminations of Schumann’s original might have made an even more telling foil for the brooding depths that followed.

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