Symphony No.2 in B, Op.14 (To October)
Symphony No.11 in G minor, Op.103 (The Year 1905)
Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre
Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre
Reviewed by: Jeremy Sheppard
Reviewed: 7 December, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
The final instalment of Valery Gergiev’s cycle of Shostakovich symphonies (at the Barbican Hall with various orchestras) featured possibly the least performed, the Second, alongside a work that has enjoyed a raised profile in recent years.
The Eleventh is a vividly cinematic work, ostensibly written about the Palace Square massacre of 1905, though later argued in Solomon Volkov’s controversial book, “Testimony” to be about the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Whatever the listener’s belief, the emotional impact of the piece can hardly be disputed, and Valery Gergiev’s daring performance ensured nothing was lost in translation.
A tense Adagio set the scene, with icy strings and carefully studied timpani, speeding up suddenly for the flutes’ exposition of the ‘Listen’ folksong. Brooding and ominous, this was suddenly left behind as the ‘Ninth of January’ Allegro took off at quite a lick. Despite his challenging tempo Gergiev’s reading was superbly detailed, the orchestra meticulously prepared, though as the tempo moved ever faster ensemble began to fray around the edges. This seemed authentic, however, recalling the great Russian performances on record of Mravinsky, Kondrashin and Rozhdestvensky, the volume now almost overpowering. After a furious figure given out by the lower strings the moment of massacre itself was reached – and cut off like a door slamming shut, the blood running cold as the strings reprised the Palace square exposition music.
The Adagio, very slow, found the strings somehow responding accurately to Gergiev’s lack of beat definition, and with the tension unabated we moved into the furious ‘Tocsin’ finale, Gergiev turning purple in the face as he drove forward the brutish string figures, the brass and percussion securing performances of eye-popping virtuosity. The end, if a trifle stage-managed, was a mighty fortissimo. That the percussionists shook hands immediately was an accurate indication of the success of this performance, confirmed by a sizeable standing ovation.
Inevitably the performance of the Second symphony suffered a little in comparison but was still dramatic in its crowd-pleasing intentions. Gergiev employed a real factory-horn to usher in the chorus, its shrill note sounding an eerie call. Shostakovich’s musical language, radically different here with the influence of Berg’s “Wozzeck” still fresh in his mind, swirled up from the lower strings in a mysterious opening. Leader Kiril Terentiev’s roughly hewn violin solo seemed appropriate, while the climax, a cacophony of industrial noise, found the 80-strong chorus of the Mariinsky reaching the heights and an ecstatic close.
Gergiev began the concert ten minutes late, and kept us waiting with a half-hour interval, but with performances of idiomatic power such details faded into insignificance.