Rotterdam PO/Gergiev Lang Lang

Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.20 (The First of May)
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Symphony No.15 in A, Op.141

Lang Lang (piano)

London Symphony Chorus

Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 11 June, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The Second and Third symphonies of Shostakovich have always been deemed to be ‘problematic’ works, not least because of their finales – both have choral apotheoses to aspects of Soviet life. The Second celebrates the October Revolution itself, whilst the Third focuses on celebrations for ‘May Day’. They have been largely neglected in the concert hall; indeed this was the first time I have had the opportunity of hearing the Third symphony ‘live’.

One of the further obstacles for ‘understanding’ this work is the composer’s approach to symphonic form at this stage of his life. We are yet to have the lucid lines and logical development of, say, the Fifth Symphony. Instead, in the Third (as was the case with its immediate predecessor) a bewildering number of ideas are presented with very little, if any, ‘development’ in the conventional sense of the term. One could argue that, along with the Second, Shostakovich’s Third Symphony is one of the earliest works in the genre where the term ‘symphony’ is something of a misnomer, from the traditional viewpoint. Nevertheless, it is a score teeming with colour, incident and interest, from the lonely clarinets at the start, which, oddly, reminded me of the opening of Bernstein’s ‘Age of Anxiety’ (Symphony No.2) from some twenty years on from Shostakovich in 1929, to the choral peroration and trumpet-led coda.

One was struck by the confidence of the orchestral playing, from individuals in the woodwinds and brass – whose lines are often most horrendously awkward, technically speaking – to the firm, full-blooded string tone. Percussion was excellent, although one or two bass drum strokes were missed towards the middle of the symphony, the only flaw of any significance. If one singles out the trumpets – two are specified in the score, but the Rotterdam Philharmonic sported four – it is because their parts are often very high and very loud. The Dutch players were magnificent. Valery Gergiev presented a reading of considerable conviction; tempo and sudden changes were well thought out and executed. In fact, in spite of the episodic nature of the writing, Gergiev was able to lend a sense of integrity to the whole. The London Symphony Chorus made a thrilling contribution to the close – Gergiev’s urgent speed propelling the music onward with true inevitability.

After this frenetic music, it was up to Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto to lead us into calmer seas. Not one of the most extrovert concertos, I was intrigued to see how Lang Lang – familiar from more overtly ‘romantic’ repertoire – would approach it. Though him and his playing were rapturously received, I suspect the performance itself will have divided opinions rather sharply. This certainly was not an approach to Beethoven one is accustomed to hearing – indeed Lang Lang’s execution of runs and scalic passages suggested prettified Chopin rather than rugged Beethoven. It was, indeed, a ‘romantic’ conception, rather self-regarding, if not downright narcissistic, as if the pianist were saying ‘look at and listen to me’ rather than inviting us to hear Beethoven.

Nevertheless, in spite of some severe reservations, I found myself rather enjoying the performance. At least it had colour and personality, rather than being something anodyne and poker-faced. Furthermore, the rapport between conductor, orchestra and soloist was excellent, with plenty of ‘give and take’. Moreover, the orchestral playing was, once again, of a very high order indeed: rather a ‘big’ sound, but none the worse for that. Often overlooked detail was audible, and that wonderful moment in the finale when the violas take over the theme was absolutely ravishing. The coda was a real ‘presto’ – and utterly exhilarating.

With Shostakovich’s final symphony, we enter a musical world which can only be described with words such as ‘enigmatic’, ‘elusive’ – ‘allusive’, even, with its references, overt and otherwise, to the music of other composers, as well as his own.

As with the performance of the Third, Gergiev’s reading – with one reservation – was impressive and convincing. A somewhat leisurely interpretation of the marking of Allegretto for the first movement enabled features to register clearly, and one couldn’t help but sense an underlying hint of menace beneath the deceptively and apparently charming surface. “A toy shop at night” was the composer’s description: not an establishment in which one would care to be left alone with the lights out, suggested Gergiev and his excellent orchestra. The profoundly moving Adagio – with a superb solo ‘cello – continued the sense of unease; the powerful climax being strong and expressive, and mercifully free of stridency. The pithy scherzo had all the bite one might wish, but my major reservation concerned the tempo for the main body of the finale. Again marked Allegretto, this was simply too slow to afford sufficient contrast with the subsequent ‘adagio’ climax; indeed there was very little difference in the pulse. Nevertheless, Gergiev’s tempo gave an inexorable feeling, and the concluding ticking percussion was suitably chilling.

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