Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev at Carnegie Hall – Shostakovich [Denis Matsuev & Timur Martynov]

Concerto in C minor for Piano, Trumpet and Strings, Op.35
Symphony No.8 in C minor, Op.65

Denis Matsuev (piano) & Timur Martynov (trumpet)

Mariinsky OrchestraValery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 11 October, 2013
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Valery Gergiev. Photograph: mariinsky.usFor the second of three Carnegie Hall concerts, Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra played works by Shostakovich. They exemplify two important aspects of his musical persona – parody and the grotesque – which evolved from his reaction to the events of his time. His Piano Concerto No1, dashed off in 1933 in just four months, pokes fun at the ribald popular styles of post-World War One, while the Eighth Symphony is the middle work of a trio of so-called ‘war symphonies’, a profoundly introspective vision of the bleakness of World War Two and its devastating impact on the human spirit. In the Piano Concerto Shostakovich indulges his penchant for irreverent satire by using what might be called common musical material, such as burlesque parlor music, bugle calls and jazzy phrases, which contrast with a riotous gallop and demonstrative revolutionary declamations. The Lento second movement seems to function on a completely different plane from its raucous predecessor.

Timur Martynov. Photograph: mariinsky.ruTimur Martynov admirably performed the work’s trumpet solos, whether fanfares or bemused thematic passages. Denis Matsuev’s remarkable agility, brilliante flair and frenetic energy well served the rigors of the outer movements, and his engaging manner of expression imbued the somber meditations that pervade the Lento with warmth and gentleness. He raced through the wild ride of the finale with unremitting gusto and then played two encores, a slyly coquettish rendition of Liadov’s A Musical Snuffbox and a choreographic rendition of a wildly raucous transcription of Grieg’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ from his music for Peer Gynt.

Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony takes us from frivolity to stark terror. Even the dimly bright finale seems more depressing than fulfilling or hopeful. The Mahlerian first movement begins with thrusting dotted rhythms. During the reprise the music becomes more agitated as if propelled into battle. Trumpets and trombones powerfully declaim a distorted version of the first theme that hurtles into a terrifying climax. To a throbbing rhythmic accompaniment in strings, the English horn tries to console, but as the movement concludes, trumpets pronounce a warning of impending doom that fades into grey twilight on one final statement of the trumpet’s motto figure. Seething violins, dark, robust cellos, vibrant woodwind coloration and brilliant brass enhanced the passages of raging power, while the strings’ lustrous timbre during dark, meditative sections sent shivers down the spine. Yet one sensed a degree of moderation that kept the enormous climaxes from overpowering. The English horn’s sorrowful tune, which tries to provide solace after the central climax despite shuddering tremolos, was superbly played. Gergiev was most impressive in generating vitality and shaping the meandering lyrical material during the softer passages, creating an atmosphere tinged with introspective disquietude.

The main theme of the bombastic second movement lacked edge. Restraint pervaded the whole, tempering its biting intensity. Despite impressive precision the closing measures, where the opening three-note figure is asserted boldly, simply fell apart. Undaunted by this embarrassingly ragged conclusion, the violas began the next movement with a forceful rendering of the running figure that is akin to the opening of Act One of Die Walküre and which screaming woodwinds and thrusting sforzando strokes in the strings rip through it. Precision is the order of the day here, and the level of intensity never flagged, but the required incisiveness was missing. The trumpet solos appearing in the central section – a Russian ‘bugler’s holiday’ – were played with verve by Sergey Kryuchkov.

Although massive climaxes open the fourth movement, brass and woodwinds abate, providing the main material for a passacaglia. These variations were exquisitely shaped and balanced and infused with an appropriately chilly atmosphere, but forward motion loosened up on occasion. Principal bassoonist Igor Gorbunov led the way into the C major finale. Gradually, the music gropes its way out of the gloom, even if never reaching bright sunlight. Gergiev aptly generated a sense of ambiguity, lending a feeling of insecurity but builds to an impassioned fantasia-like section and the pace accelerates. Trumpets and trombones strove to the heights on dotted rhythms as a final terrifying pronouncement of the horrors of war. Then a solo clarinet, excellently played by Victor Kulyk, ushered in the coda, the symphony ending in disquieting calm. No comforting resolution is offered here. Ending not with a bang but with a whimper (or more aptly a whisper), the symphony’s closing moments were more disturbing than uplifting. A long silence preceded applause.

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