Vienna Philharmonic/Gergiev (2)

Overture, Scherzo and Finale, Op.52
Symphony No.9 in E flat, Op.70
Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 14 September, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This second Vienna Philharmonic concert with Valery Gergiev framed a Shostakovich symphony that has only latterly come into its own with Viennese classics of widely differing reputation. Indeed, that of Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo and Finale has likely gone down in recent decades: unfairly so, a ‘symphonic suite’ that is among its composer’s most spontaneous orchestral works – bringing together a nascent concert overture, a scherzo-cum- intermezzo, and a fantasia-like finale in a near-compendium of mid-Romantic formal thinking. Respectively robustly forthright and deftly sprung in the first two, Gergiev was rhythmically over-insistent in the latter – but the opportunity to hear the piece played with such unobtrusive elegance needed no justification.

Nor is the VPO unfamiliar with Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony, albeit having been goaded by Leonard Bernstein into making rather a meal of it two decades ago. Gergiev’s account was a perceptive one overall – with an unexpectedly trenchant opening Allegro followed by a Moderato whose mingled wistfulness and pathos was unerringly judged. The final three movements play continuously (a procedure used to very different ends in the Eighth Symphony), and if ensemble was slightly blurred in the Presto, Gergiev ensured a suitably plangent response in the baleful fanfares and noble bassoon soliloquies of the central Largo. Building the Allegretto patiently, he found less vicious irony in its closing stages than have other conductors, without notably downplaying its expressive ambivalence.

While it quickly found favour in the West, Shostakovich 9 has layers of meaning as could only have initially been evident to those in the orbit of Socialist Realism. The recovery of the fragment from an earlier, aborted ‘Ninth Symphony’ ought now to confirm that, far from ducking the issue when it came to marking events in 1945, the composer responded in the most-subtle yet powerful way imaginable.

Brahms was as uncompromising in intent with his Fourth Symphony. Although Gergiev could hardly be accused of overdriving the piece, he brought out a certain restless and over-wrought quality that prevented the first movement from seeming as inevitable as it should be, and similarly undermined the Andante’s stoic eloquence – for all the innate songfulness of the VPO’s woodwinds. The latter movements were more convincing – the scherzo’s bracing humour given tensile wit by the triangle’s unobtrusive presence, and the passacaglia finale unfolding with evident sureness of purpose, while making due space for the rich emotional incident of the piece as a whole. Tragic lessin its import than in its sheer conclusiveness, this is another symphony to have come into its own in an age that distrusts affirmation (easy or otherwise): Gergiev evidently perceived this, even though his mapping-out of the overall symphonic trajectory was less than absolute.

A suavely played First Hungarian Dance from Brahms’s evergreen sequence made an engaging encore.

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