SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 9; Violin Concerto No. 1 – Valery Gergiev/ Mariinsky Orch. / Leonidas Kavakos, v. – Mariinsky multichannel SACD MAR0524, 63:31 (5/12/15) [Dist. by Naxos] ****

The Mariinsky’s Shostakovich cycle has been an internationally acclaimed project, and lauded by many reviewers, including me, as disc after disc becomes available. This latest SACD disc contains the Symphony No. 9 and the Violin Concert No. 1.

The 9th Symphony was a bit of a surprise to followers of Shostakovich. It was written just after World War II Originally, the composer expected to write a celebratory piece, but midway through the composition, Shostakovich radically changed direction. He dropped his ideas for soloists and a chorus (perhaps he was thinking of the Beethoven 9th), and instead wrote “In character, the Ninth Symphony differs sharply from my preceding symphonies, the Seventh and the Eighth. If the Seventh and the Eighth symphonies bore a tragic-heroic character, then in the Ninth a transparent, pellucid, and bright mood predominates.”

The performance is memorable, with the orchestra under the able baton of Valery Gergiev precise, driven, and deeply emotional. Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra have established an enviable reputation with the music of Shostakovich, and this disc will only increase the praise the orchestra has already gained.

The interpretation of the 3rd movement (Presto) is interesting. I’ve never heard it played faster, and I would expect the ensemble was driven to the edge of their capabilities, but I could hear no slip-ups.

The recording is excellent. It is very full-bodied, with smooth strings, punchy low end, and an excellent image across the front channels. I’ve never heard the 9th sound better. Surrounds are used for light ambiance.

The Violin Concerto No. 1 is a late work of the composer. It’s dark and melancholy, perhaps reflecting the composers life of struggles against the Soviet regime. It’s performed here with soloist Leonidas Kavakos, who was awarded Gramophone’s Artist of the Year 2014. This is an incisive and lovely performance, faultless to my ear. Once again we have a lovely recording. Concertos are often recorded in such a way that the violin dominates and doesn’t blend well with the orchestra. Here it sounds perfect, with the violin just slightly left of center. The acoustics of the Mariinsky Theater are nicely rendered, and I felt as I was listening to a live performance from a well placed seat.

This disc is a fine pairing of these two works by Shostakovich. I’m wondering if at some point we’ll see a multi-disc set of all the symphonies. That would be very desirable. Recommended!

—Mel Martin