SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 15 – Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev – Mariinsky multichannel SACD MAR0502, 75:52 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
The birth to this present recording and the philosophy behind the establishment of the Mariinsky label clearly exemplifies why the music industry continues to stand on firm healthy grounds in spite of much hand-wringing in the press about the death of classical music. Headed by Chaz Jenkins, Head of LSO Live Ltd., who is one of the pioneers to the concept of “Orchestra-Record Label Industry,” the Mariinsky home label was founded in May 2009. Following the success of its début house recording on the opera of Shostakovich’s The Nose, the present recording from the Mariinsky Orchestra surveys the first and final (No. 15) symphonies written by the Russian composer. The acclaimed success to Maestro Valery Gergiev’s performances of Symphonies Nos.4 – 9 “War Symphonies” previously released on Philips had established Gergiev’s provocative and respected insights on the Symphonies of Shostakovich, and this release on the Symphonies Nos. 1 and 15 further exemplifies his fascination and natural affinity on the subject matter. In fact, this present release will mark the first to a complete Shostakovich Symphonies Cycle to be undertaken by the Mariinsky Orchestra under Maestro Gergiev, subsequently released on its house label in forthcoming years.
This is certainly most welcoming news for the Shostakovich fans, offering as a notable comparison to the esteemed cycles by conductors as Barshai, Kondrashin, Haitink, Rozhdestvensky, and including one by the composer’s son Maxim Shostakovich. For those interested in numbers and sale figures, this recording will likewise prove a fine example for the Mariinsky Orchestra to establish its name in the general classical music world, not only as one of the finest opera and ballet orchestras internationally, but equally apt and revered in the repertoire of the orchestral world. This recording provides the evidence on a strong note, while only time will prove the validity to this prediction.
The 40+ years that span between these two symphonies from 1923 to 1971 witnessed a cycle in the musical styles of Shostakovich. As the accompanying notes to this recording points out, it signifies both “creativity and Shostakovich’s dark wit.” How may this be so? In addition to the influences of Scriabin and Tchaikovsky, the First Symphony owes much influences of Gustav Mahler that Shostakovich carried and transformed into his own voice during his life. Clearly, Mahler’s taste for martial music was equally evident here early in Shostakovich’s First Symphony (and reached fuller blossom subsequently in his Fourth). Similar to Mahler’s own Symphony No. 1, Gergiev recapitulates a musical trait noteworthy to Shostakovich’s music, which is the latter’s gifts in handling orchestral textures and balance. It is the conductor’s ability to highlight these elements that testifies his/her skills to command the orchestra, and Gergiev points to the quirky Allegretto movement with principals from the Mariinsky Orchestra to show off brilliant solo passages with taste and precision. The animated clarinet and trumpet solos are particularly exemplary. The second movement Allegro contains light-weight material, which is brought out well in this performance both on artistic and acoustic levels. Here, the keyboardist on the piano is showcased notably on various occasions, and the three emphatic chords for solo piano performed by Valeria Rumiantseva would easily have misled listeners in thinking that such raw power originates from a male pianist. In the slow movement Lento-Largo, Gergiev displays his brooding power, which is a deceivingly large and long movement despite its recording time of 8’45”.
The final fourth movement starts off in Allegro Molto, reaching a “fast and furious” state from the woodwinds, piano, and later echoed by the brasses. It is then interjected unexpectedly by a sweet melody from the principal violin in a Lento-Adagio section. The Presto, which culminates the final segments of this movement, reaches its heights beginning at 8:58, as the music climbs headfast to a climax defined by both color and heart-lifting spirits, interpreted genuinely by the Mariinsky Orchestra. Immersed with seemingly odd elements of humor and tragedy, and infiltrated by musical quotations from Rossini and Wagner, Shostakovich’s Symphony No.15 has intimidated listeners as one of the most difficult works to comprehend out of his entire fifteen in this genre. Besides quotations from the above composers, influences from Mahler remain lasting even for the then 65 year-old Shostakovich, particularly in the latter’s lifelong use of satire to nearly bizarre and grotesque extremes. Here, the Symphony No.15 is no exception. Like Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, Shostakovich drew on the many facets and life experiences that he had experienced during the Stalinist Era, creating a score that is as bitter a work as how some may perceive Mahler’s Sixth, infamous for its “three hammer blows of faith.” The occasional roughness in playing from the Mariinsky Orchestra has ironically helped Maestro Gergiev to bring listeners close to the core behind the social circumstances of this final Symphony. While there are tragic overtones, the use of Rossini’s William Tell Overture is none but sardonic humor, while both the excerpts from Shostakovich’s own works (below) and the “Fate leitmotif” from Wagner’s Ring present as less cheerful contradictions.
The power and eloquence of this [No.15] performance is a home-concert experience that shows both vigor on Gergiev’s direction and the commitment the Mariinsky Orchestra has to honor their country’s most revered composer. Listen to how Gergiev scales the dynamic-markings, making scrupulous care to balance the gravitas of sound, and his innate sense to long melodic line certainly pays great dividends in this music. This latter aspect of his gift as a conductor reached supreme in Shostakovich’s most bizarre moments (like the opening of the third movement Allegretto, or in the final moments of the fourth movement Adagio section), where music impacted on a greater scale with such revelation than the notated score on paper would entail. The highlight of this recording perhaps rests in the long slow movement Adagio, given the spacious and outstanding solo contributions from the principal cellist and clarinetist. The peculiar choice of whimsical percussion instruments that Shostakovich used in its eerie coda ending in the final movement Adagio-Allegretto is another important highlight, which sheds notable parallels to the composer’s Fourth Symphony and the Cello Concerto No.2. The final pages of this movement have never sounded more haunted and unrest, fading away to silence in the final minute as to give listeners a powerful sense of a masterly composer drawing his own curtains down to a final close. Music certainly provokes all facets of life, and under Valery Gergiev’s direction, the Mariinsky Orchestra offers an impressive account into the final years of Dmitri Shostakovich’s life in this very symphony.
The apparent acoustic brilliance of the Mariinsky Concert, Hall, coupled with excellent sound engineering from John Newton and Dirk Sobotka, provided synergistic qualities that have transformed a studio recording to what may deceivingly be mistaken as a live concert performance. With an equally strong début orchestral recording as their operatic recording counterpart in Shostakovich’s The Nose, it is hard to name any other orchestra but the Mariinsky Theatre which could reign high in both operatic and orchestral repertoire unequivocally.
— Patrick P.L. Lam