Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra/Gergiev – Shostakovich 1

Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.54
Symphony No.13 in B flat minor, Op.113 (Babi Yar)

Sergey Alexashkin (bass)

Bass Voices of the Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre

Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

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

The first of three back-to-back concerts each devoted to symphonies by Shostakovich with which to complete Valery Gergiev’s Barbican Hall survey of all fifteen with various orchestras: London Symphony, the Rotterdam and Vienna Philharmonics, and, of course, the ensemble formerly known as Kirov and unequivocally termed here as the ‘Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra’.

Gergiev – podium-less and baton-less (you can’t call a three-inch sliver of wood a baton!), the double basses on the left, the violas on the right – led well-prepared accounts of this particular pairing, but with very different results.

Symphony No.6 is open to all manner of interpretation – not just the notation but the extra-musical implications, too. Not that Gergiev gave much opportunity for the latter in what was a ‘pure music’ performance, dynamically modulated to be sure, but lacking any sense of edge or irony. The long opening Largo dragged even though the overall timing (18 minutes) was fairly ‘standard’ in this respect; introspective to a fault, what was noticeably lacking was chill and terror. There was though some finely-graded playing and numerous sensitive woodwind solos, somewhat undone by dubious notes from the principal trumpet and a brass section that was rather hectoring in its loudness. Of the two fast movements that follow, the first was pungent but too controlled for hysteria to be fully unleashed at its mid-point, and the finale seemed shy of the ‘circus music’ implications and a couple of tempo changes were awkward.

After a ‘nothing special’ first half, the account of Symphony No.13 (which Gergiev conducted at the Proms just a few months ago with these same forces, soloist aside) was riveting from start to finish – sinewy, searching and gripping. Gergiev kept the music on the move, and with barely a pause between movements (the last three of the five are ‘attached’ anyway), there was a real sense of urgency, but not haste, and the ‘attack’ and ‘brightness’ of the brass was now fully justified; indeed this was a hard-hitting and painful experience that seemed to get inside the very being of the collaboration between poet and composer – nothing to ‘enjoy’ or ‘entertain’ here. Whether having Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s (then, 1962) politically-sensitive texts projected as English surtitles is preferable to having them printed in the programme is a moot point; you only have one chance to catch the lines and no opportunity to re-visit and reflect.

For all that Sergey Alexashkin was a wonderfully authoritative guide, a ‘vessel’ (pace Stravinsky’s comment on The Rite of Spring), for Yevtushenko’s courageous stance – all technical matters absorbed into the projection of the text that was communicative and dynamically shaded with some chilling sotto voce effects in what is a demanding, almost-continuous role (appositely, no chair was provided for Alexashkin) and the 28-strong bass-voice contingent was equally adept and compelling. Vivid, but never showy or gratuitous, Gergiev drew some outstanding playing from the orchestra, but what stood out was the ‘inside knowledge’ of all concerned in presenting this music as a part of its turbulent times – one could imagine being in the tense atmosphere of the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire on 18 December 1962, the premiere performance under close political scrutiny, Kyril Kondrashin, the conductor, standing firm on not making cuts or, it seems, dropping the first movement altogether, in which Yevtushenko reminds of the “thousands of Jews murdered by the Nazis” and questions the lack of a memorial.

After this, the movement entitled ‘Humour’ was driven and black, savagely satirical, a menacing parade. ‘In the Store’ and ‘Fears’ were intensely subdued (making the climaxes burn) and ‘Careers’ made progression a vain hope. Totally compelling throughout, the symphony faded to nothing and a long-held silence that nobody interrupted until Gergiev finally lowered his arms. Symphony No.13 really left its mark here.

  • Symphonies 12 & 10 on 6 December, and symphonies 2 & 11 on 7 December
  • Barbican

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