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Gergiev continues his Shostakovich cycle with a ‘three-in-one’ package

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At the beginning of last month, the Mariinsky label released the sixth album in Valery Gergiev’s project to record the symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich based on concert performances by the Mariinsky Orchestra in the Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Regular readers know that Vasily Petrenko has been pursuing a similar project with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Naxos and that Petrenko has been consistently ahead of the game. Indeed, as of this writing, Petrenko has only one more symphony to record, Opus 113 in B-flat minor, the thirteenth symphony, subtitled Babi Yar after its inclusion of five poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, one for each of the symphony’s five movements, beginning with the “Babi Yar” poem.

Gergiev’s new recording is a two-CD set covering three consecutive symphonies:

  • The fourth, Opus 43 in C minor, recorded without an audience present on June 24–27, 2013
  • The fifth, Opus 47 in D minor, recorded at concerts on June 5 and 9, 2012, and without an audience present on June 14
  • The sixth, Opus 54 in B minor, recorded in concert on June 21, 2013, and without an audience present on June 23 and 26

These three symphonies cover a fall-and-recovery period in Shostakovich’s life prior of the Soviet Union’s declaration of war with Germany. Opus 43 was withdrawn from performance in conjunction with his denunciation by the Communist Party (primarily due to the first performance of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in 1934); and it would not be premiered until 1961. Opus 47 was then his “redemption” symphony, composed in 1937 and followed by Opus 54 in 1939.

Much has been made of the question of whether or not Opus 47 was an “encrypted” commentary on Joseph Stalin’s brutal treatment of artists. There is certainly a major “martial” episode in the opening, which almost seems to stamp on the second theme that has been introduced; and the coda of the final (fourth) movement has all the earmarks of tub-thumping patriotism. It is thus significant to note that Gergiev keeps a firmly objective rein on the Mariinsky performance, never allowing expressiveness to overwhelm the letter of the score. One result is that, while the final coda is executed with a well-controlled gradual crescendo, allowing the final measures to erupt with the full dynamic force of the entire ensemble, there is very little sense of flag-waving rhetoric behind his execution. For Gergiev it’s all about the music, and the rest is left to the mind of the listener.

On the other hand, the full-throated account he gives to Opus 43 suggests that Shostakovich was, at the time, pushing himself beyond the limits of his Lady Macbeth opera. The symphony begins with a “primal scream;” and, even when slower tempos are involved, there is a sense of a steady flow of energy to drive the work forward through its three movements. Gergiev seems to have understood that this entire symphony is one continuous flow of tempo changes, rather than three separate movements. (Mind you, we have no way of knowing how it was actually performed in concert. The instrumental demands are such that retuning may have been necessary between movements.)

Personally, however, I find Opus 54 the most interesting of the set. It is another symphony in only three movements, but the overall allotment of duration is almost grotesquely out of proportion. The time required to perform the opening Largo exceeds that necessary for the remaining two movements combined. However, my own interest is not so much in that distorted perspective as it is in the extent to which that Largo appears to acknowledge the influence of Gustav Mahler. Thus, one might say that the Largo dwarfs the remaining movements in the same way that “Der Abschied” dwarfs the sequence of the five movements preceding it in Das Lied von der Erde.

Gergiev is, of course, no stranger to Mahler. He recorded all but the tenth symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra; so it is reasonable to assume that he recognized, and probably chose to honor, the Mahler influences on Opus 54. Thus, at the very least, one appreciates many of the techniques through which Mahler would guide the flow of time, particularly in his slow movements. However, Gergiev then approaches the remaining two movements in a relatively matter-of-fact matter, as if, having invested so much energy in “making an offering to Mahler,” Shostakovich was now content to “go back to being Shostakovich.”

Taken as a whole, this sequence of three symphonies covers a narrow but critical period of Shostakovich’s life. However, Gergiev prefers to stick to the music itself, rather than trying to play up any biographical connections, encrypted or otherwise. The result is a set of performances that give a faithful account of what Shostakovich wrote while leaving the listener to form his/her own interpretative associations.