Symphony No.36 in C, K425 (Linz)
Symphony No.4 in C minor, Op.43

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 5 February, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Mozart and Shostakovich make an apposite coupling in the 250th and 100th year of their respective births, and Valery Gergiev responded accordingly in this third concert of his Shostakovich cycle at the Barbican.

Why the Linz was chosen to partner the Fourth Symphony is unclear: the key of C as against C minor, perhaps, or is the Mozart a favourite of Gergiev (or, indeed, of Shostakovich)? Whatever the reason, the Mozart received a secure but unremarkable performance, with Gergiev seeming content to let the LSO coast through on something akin to auto-pilot. The outer movements were incisive without evincing any real energy (divided violins rarely making their antiphonal mark), while theAndante lacked any deeper or subtler expression beneath its bland exterior. A plodding Minuet was partly offset by an attractively ruminative trio, but overall this was as tedious and uninvolving an account of an underrated, if not-quite-masterpiece as could be imagined these days.

Things came together, as they needed to, in the Shostakovich. Gergiev has spoken of the Fourth Symphony as being the all-round catalyst that made its successors possible, and the piece clearly engages his attention far beyond merely getting the notes right. He kept a firm grip on the sprawling but never haphazard sonata-form in the first of its three movements (not a few patrons were flummoxed by the listing of five movements, the headings of those for the Eighth Symphony having been inadvertently substituted in the programme!) – setting a brisk but not headlong tempo for the opening paragraphs, and modifying this subtly but effectively for the Mahlerian theme that concludes the exposition. The development, capped by a charged but finely controlled rendering of its string fugato and ensuing onslaught, then emerged as more than the sum of its violently contrasted parts. Its anticipatory chords superbly weighted dynamically, the reprise Initially sounded subdued, but the skewed recall of themes that follows was astutely done (guest leader Igor Gruppman treading a neat line between character and caricature), and the closing bars impressive in their ominous unease.

Ever since its belated premiere in 1961 (35 years after its intended first performance was pulled in the midst of a Leningrad gripped by Stalinist terror), the symphony’s second movement had been regarded as structurally its most coherent. Not that Gergiev’s swift overall pacing went against its spirit: rather, it left the music’s more ambivalent expressive facets untapped. Thus the winding second theme was elegant but not soulful, thecentral polyphonic build-up hardly claustrophobic in its intensity, and the coda’s percussion ostinatos marginally too loud for a spectral quality fully to emerge.

In the finale, Shostakovich’s searing emotional honesty finally comes out into the open, and Gergiev seconded him accordingly. His steady but simmering approach to the initial funeral march ensured a climax of brooding majesty – and, if his rightness in maintaining the same tempo going into the Allegro was slightly undermined by his pressing ahead at the start of the centralspan (which was merely repetitive rather than pointedly mindless), the culmination was one of bracing extroversion. Unlike his Russian predecessors, Gergiev does not make the ensuing divertissement one of overt parody, but integrates its successive quirks – LSO wind and brass gleefully seizing on their moments in the spotlight – so that this seeming parenthesis is made essential to the movement’s overall progress. The breathtaking entry of the timpanists seemed rushed but not the baleful apotheosis that they powerfully underpin – its tonal conflict unresolved as the music implodes into the deafening silence of the coda. Gergiev paced this adroitly: if the final evanescence felt expressively blank rather than drained, such blankness may be the only logical outcome of Shostakovich’s reckless soul-searching.

If, taken overall, this was less of a piece than Gergiev’s fine performance with the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre at the Proms some three years ago, it found the conductor trying out new and often convincing interpretative options, and generally probing deeper into a work with which he clearly feels an especial empathy. If the Mozart thus fails to be a masterpiece through its lack of ambition, the Shostakovich fails for precisely the opposite reason. Perhaps this was what Gergiev had intended to convey through bringing the two symphonies together, and then interpreting them accordingly?

  • Recorded by BBC4 for future broadcast
  • LSO

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