Friday, December 18, 2009

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos.1 and 15 (Gergiev)

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos.1 and 15
Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
Mariinsky MAR0502 | Stereo DDD (SACD)

They used to say that James Brown was “the hardest working man in show business”, but I think that title can now easily be awarded to conductor Valery Gergiev. Hopping from New York, to St. Petersburg, to London, to Berlin, and beyond--the man is everywhere nowadays! And unlike most of today’s jet-set conductors, Gergiev shows no evidence of jet lag on the podium. A Gergiev concert is no ordinary pedestrian run-through. I can personally attest to the thrill he can inspire in the concert listener. His concerts in Los Angeles a few years ago, where he conducted Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony and excerpts from Wagner’s Ring, are some of my most cherished memories. But Gergiev on record has been somewhat erratic. His Prokofieff cycle would have been one of the best had it not been scuttled by the poor acoustics of London’s Barbican Center. His LSO Mahler cycle has also blown hot and cold and is similarly marred by those atrocious acoustics. His Philips’ set of Shostakovich’s “war symphonies” is emblematic of his success on records. What should have been a home run was anything but. A knock-out recording of the Sixth Symphony, a decent Ninth, somewhat muddy Fifth, Seventh, and Eighth, and a positively bland Fourth Symphony. So I wasn’t expecting too much from this CD when I bought it. Indeed, I braced myself for another “close, but no cigar” moment. Not this time!

It makes sense to pair these works, the alpha and omega of Shostakovich’s symphonic oeuvre, and I can only wonder why it hasn’t been done more often. I can only think of three other albums that pair these symphonies: Charles Dutoit on Decca, Vladimir Fedoseyev on Pony Canyon, and Oleg Caetani on Arts. It may seem strange to pair these works--one a masterly work of a precocious youth; the other a work of a composer embittered and jaded, fretting over the future of Russian music and, possibly, western music in general.

This Shostakovich First is easily one of the best I’ve ever heard. True, Gergiev’s interpretation is refracted through the lens of the later Shostakovich, so the symphony seems more serious and even brooding than it normally does. Some people may prefer a more youthful and chipper approach such as the recordings by Bernstein, Ancerl, Ashkenazy, Ormandy, and Rodzinski, among others, offer. Both approaches work fine by me. I’ll be coming back often to this recording.

Even better than the First is Gergiev’s recording of the Fifteenth. This strange work has eluded the grasp of many a conductor and though one can find enough recordings of it available, finding a good recording is not so easy. Best of the lot are Maxim Shostakovich’s recordings (his Melodiya recording can be found here at Maready’s The High Pony Tail Blog), Ormandy’s, Kitaenko’s, Lopez Cobos’, and Sanderling’s. This new Gergiev easily ranks alongside with them and can even safely be recommended as a benchmark. Gergiev is able to find just the right tone of voice for this symphony; by turns jaunty, mournful, eerie, and hauntingly beautiful. His recording is similar in conception to Kurt Sanderling’s recordings, but with more snap in the rhythms of the first and third movements. The brass are a joy to hear and sound warm and full in the second movement’s funeral chorale. The Fifteenth Symphony (and the Fourth) are particular favorites of mine and I have the dubious distinction of having heard every recording ever made (as well as owning nearly all of them). This is truly a great recording of Shostakovich’s symphonic farewell. It was so good I had to play it three more times all the way through.

Sonics are excellent throughout. Very wide spectrum of sound with plenty of depth. None of Philips’ muddiness is to be found here.

From what I’ve been hearing, Gergiev and his Mariinsky Orchestra will be recording all of the Shostakovich symphonies starting with the ones omitted from the Philips cycle. If this recording is anything to go by, this new cycle promises to be one of the very best. I can’t wait to hear more from this team.



  2. Argghh!

    That's the sound of me having problems with my browser --- this is the third time I've tried to leave you a thank you and Happy New Year message!

    I hope it gets through this time, and if ALL of my thank yous end up showing up in the comments, it will be very embarrassing.

    BUT --- once again, I apologize for not keeping up with your last bunch of posts. I saw Robert and Gaby C. and had to stop by and grab that one, since I've never had a copy that was in good enough shape to listen to --- thank you very much for that one.

    It's weird to thank people for things I haven't heard yet, but if I don't do it while they are downloading I might forget to say thank you later. SO thanks also for this Gergiev --- I have been very disappointed in most of his studio recordings of the last decade, but his live recordings have been great. And since you have given me so much information and advice about Shostakovich I am very curious to hear this 15th Symphony --- if it is 1/3 as exciting as (for example) the live Szymanowski King Roger from Covent Garden that has been on the internet, it'll be amazing. And while I'm here, I'll grab the Nielsen and Martinon and so on ...

    Thanks for such a great blog, and I'll try and report back if I have anything intelligent to say about the recordings. And thank you very much for the Casadesus duos in particular.

    Happy New Year!

  3. Thanks for this fine post - best regards!

  4. Thank you so much!

  5. Is there anywhere online where one might be able to download the premiere recording of the 15th under the baton of Maxim? It's impossible to find and though the Sanderling and Kondrashin/Dresden recordings make up for this to some extent, I really want to feel that closeness to the intensely personal event that certainly was the premiere of Dmitri's final symphonic statement.