Vienna Philharmonic/Gergiev (1)

Symphony No.36 in C, K425 (Linz)
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 13 September, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Valery Gergiev’s Shostakovich cycle having reached its ‘Vienna stage’, this first of two concerts with the Philharmonic coupled the composer’s most popular symphony with the same Mozart work of which Gergiev gave so unremarkable a performance with the London Symphony Orchestra in February. This VPO ‘Linz’ (the ‘Jupiter’ was originally advertised) suggested that Gergiev had more thoroughly got to grips with this near-masterpiece during the interim: indeed, the streamlined vitality of the outer movements (exposition repeated in each case) was a pleasure in itself – and if the Minuet was still a little staid, its ruminative Trio section was fetchingly rendered. Best of all was an Andante that brought an almost Masonic gravitas to Mozart’s melodic writing – suggesting that, though he is still largely an unknown quantity in the pre-nineteenth-century repertoire, Gergiev may yet have the makings of a attentive Mozartean. Some, of course, will maintain the VPO can play Mozart equally well on auto-pilot.

After the interval, Shostakovich Five in what can fairly be described as a ‘median performance’ in all respects. At 47 minutes, the work was neither ruthlessly driven nor expressively distended: Gergiev set a flowing tempo for the opening Moderato – its main themes elegiac and gently pathetic – and was unusually successful in bringing off Shostakovich’s modifications of tempo across the development; the start of the reprise arriving just where it should – at the movement’s emotional apex – while the closing pages distilled a keen desolation. The Allegretto was bluffly ironic, with a nice sense of the balletic in its trio – though the holding back during the latter’s belated recall was too self-conscious. The Largo was never less than cohesive – the VPO strings evincing real luminosity in some of Shostakovich’s most potent melodic inspirations, and with an enthralling ‘hush’ in the otherworldly central section, though the impact of the subsequent climax was spoiled by too hasty a preparation.

Few symphonic movements have been more subject to non-symphonic ‘readings’ than has the finale. Beginning almost attacca (minimising breaks between movements being a recurrent feature of his symphonic ethos), Gergiev followed through the tempo accelerations of its first third with admirable consistency, then found the right combination of repose and mystery in the long central paragraph. Nor did he attempt to overload the apotheosis with any manner of overkill: eschewing the rampant abandon favoured during the composer’s lifetime, and also the measured fatalism often encountered subsequently, it emerged with a real sense of formal and expressive rightness – admitting neither of triumph nor tragedy. Sobering to think that, almost seventy years on from the premiere of the last century’s most-played symphony, its true outcome might only now be coming into focus. At any rate, no-one hearing it for the first time on this occasion could have been other than impressed by its consistency.

A sensuously played ‘Panorama’ from Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty made for a relaxing encore.

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