Essential. Nothing else to say.
SHOSTAKOVICH: Complete Symphonies and Concertos – Valery Gergiev, Blu-ray (2015)
Performers: Orch. and Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre/ Valery Gergiev/ Alena Baeva, violin/ Vadin Repin, violin/ Mario Brunello, cello/ Gautier Capucon, cello/ Denis Matsuev, piano/ Danil Trifonov, piano/ Timur Martynov, trumpet/ Veroinika Dzhioeva, sop./ Mikhail Petrenko, bass (Live from Salle Pleyel, Paris, 2013-14
Producer: Torsten Bonnhoff
Director: Don Kent
Studio: Arthaus Musik 107552 (Four Blu-Ray Discs) [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: Full HD 1080i 16:9 color
Audio: PCM Stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0
Subtitles: German, English, French, Korean, Japanese
Length: 970 min., 58 min. introductions, 58 minutes doc. – Dmitri Shostakovich – A Man of Many Faces
This is, by Gergiev’s accounting, his second complete live traversal through the Shostakovich Symphonies and Concertos, the first being a number of years ago with the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam. These were filmed and recorded in France, which surprised me since most of their recordings have been at their home base in St. Petersburg. To get one controversy out of the way: there are listener reviews on Amazon and in Britain complaining of so-called “compression” in the sound of the releases. Honestly, I don’t hear it, as I was blasting away at rather elevated volume at three in the morning, and noticed no loss of audio at all in anything. If this was true it would be the first time I have encountered signal compression in any Blu-ray disc, ever. One “reviewer” even opined that it was done so as not to disturb the neighbors at high volume—seriously?
Since this is an audio and visual experience, the usual nits saw away at me—Gergiev sweats like no one I have ever seen, never stops to wipe it off, and always looks stubbly and wears a long black frock-like outfit that never, ever, looks as if it was ironed. It gets old after a while, as does the ridiculous conducting with a toothpick, as no one in the orchestra can see it, so what good is it? I suppose somehow it helps him, and he does seem able to get his oft-times Furtwanglerian conductorial approach across to the orchestra members. His knowledge and understanding of all these scores is self-evident, and with this release I can’t imagine a more competent Shostakovich interpreter alive today.
The videos are stunningly presented, with just the right amount of cutting from instrument to instrument to conductor done in as unobtrusive a manner as possible, and no sudden break-away for ostensibly musical reasons like the rattling of a quick timpani or explosive cymbal. The color scheme is excellent in the rather bleak hall, and the caught reflections of the players and their own reactions to the music—beside just the conductor—make this a truly democratic effort giving equal voice to all involved. The orchestra is firstrate, aside from a few minor scrapes that almost any other orchestra would also be forced to endure when coming to terms with some of the composer’s brilliant but incredibly difficult passages, and no soloist is anything less than superb in any of the concertos or vocal pieces.
To the Symphonies — No. 1 is probably the weakest, not a bad reading by any means, but a little rushed for my taste, almost a little condescending toward a nineteen-year-old composer’s first effort, as if Gergiev is afraid to give it too much seriousness. No. 2 is a great surprise, despite the presence of the sickly Soviet text, the orchestral writing is fresh, exhilarating, and lively with a keen musical consciousness at play. No. 3 is similar—these two works are never played, and the reason is, along with No. 12’s sudden lurch into classicism and the unfortunate “The Year 1917” title that brings up no good memories to anyone, all three are all too brewed in Soviet stew, at least outwardly. For No. 12, this is unfortunate, as it is a wonderful break from the trials of the previous and subsequent pieces, and was actually a favorite of the great Mravinsky, who programmed it often. Not anymore.
No. 4 is the composer’s first truly “great” work, and though it was misunderstood as much then as now, careful listening brings a revelation of incredible ideas and tightly-knit constructs. Gergiev appreciates this, and reveals and untangles the many knots. No. 5 is maybe the second weakest here, hardly a surprise as so many outstanding recordings are available, first among them Bernstein, whom Gergiev cannot match, but still presents a credible reading of power and force. No. 6 returns to the composer’s “pure music mode” (though all of his symphonies deserve that moniker when shed of the outward political associations) and Gergiev is on top of every twist and turn in this delightful work. No. 7, the “Leningrad” has origins as tortured as some of the music, and it takes a special hand indeed to navigate the sourest of sarcasms present in the piece, brutally honest yet still somewhat hopeful. That hope will disappear in No. 14, a series of songs with chamber orchestra inspired by Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, and Shostakovich’s own obsession with the mortality of man finds full reign in the gorgeous yet horribly pessimistic poems by varied authors. No. 15, a hearkening back to influences as disparate as Rossini and Wagner, brings back some hope at the end of a most difficult yet wildly creative life, cementing the composer as one of the greatest symphonists ever.
No. 8 reflects the importance of purely classically-defined symphonic structures found in No. 4, a gargantuan work of great emotional persuasion and outburst, barely containable in the context of even this large a structure. Gergiev again gets it good, and moderates the considerable orchestral demands into a unified context. No. 9 is again a retreat into jollity and good spirits, a superb reading that is equaled only by Bernstein’s later DGG account with the Vienna Philharmonic. No. 10 is one of the most popular pieces, and with good reason, as each movement presents us with a heart-on-sleeve portrait of what could be Stalin himself, though from a simply musical standpoint the composer never created anything as unified and cohesive, not to mention wonderful musical ideas. No. 11, whose “1905” title attempts to tell us of the turbulence and thrills found in that highly-charged political year, has been drawn by some as a response to the Hungarian invasion. Maybe, maybe not—in the end, as in most of the symphonies, it doesn’t matter—Shostakovich must be treated as a musician and that only, for us to have a real understanding of his art, and his art in this magnificent work is nearly peerless. No. 13, “Babi Yar”, only gets better each time I hear this incredible piece, a diatribe against anti-Semitism unmatched anywhere in any work of art, a worthy reading to match the greats of the past.
The concertos — well, as I said, they are all played to the hilt by exceptionally accomplished artists in performances that stand with just about anyone. While I might like Bernstein’s Piano Concerto No. 1 better than the one here, this is an extremely elevated level of accomplishment, and saying that Gautier Capucon can’t quite equal the performance of Rostropovich and Ormandy is hardly a slight to the former. What is interesting is hearing the respective piano, cello, and violin concertos played in sequence by genre. Often the second efforts have been criticized, as if it was expected that the composer would do again what he had already done. But in each case, the second concertos are far more thoughtful and reflective than the first ones, which are bigger in technique and statement, and so serve a different purpose.
So here you have it, an essential set if ever there was one, in superb sound and video. My only complaint is that an audio-only version wasn’t offered. As is, these live readings will stand as some of the best Shostakovich around, and easily the best collected set. Each work is preceded by a brief commentary by the conductor, and the included almost one-hour documentary, that contains much rare information about Shostakovich, is excellent, though a lot of Gergiev’s commentary is repeated there. You can get this anywhere from about a hundred bucks to one-fifty, and it’s worth it!