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S & H International Concert Review

KIROV AT CARNEGIE HALL: Leningrad Symphony, Kirov Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater, Valery Gergiev, Music Director and Conductor, Carnegie Hall, New York City, October 3, 2003 (BH)


Irina Mataeva, Soprano
Ekaterina Semenchuk, Mezzo-soprano
Yevgeny Akimov, Tenor


So picture this: shortly after its completion in 1941, the score to Shostakovichís Seventh Symphony ("Leningrad") is smuggled out of the former Soviet Union on microfilm, well before the advent of microchips that could have stored the entire thing, and far in advance of something called the Internet that could have transmitted it in a few seconds. Then in 1942, Toscanini plays the piece with the NBC Symphony Orchestra with millions of Americans listening, glued to their radios. The truth is that at one time this piece had a sizeable portion of the country under its spell, transmitting the composerís vision of a city under siege. Needless to say, today it seems quite unlikely that any piece of classical music could spark a similar display of such national curiosity, passion and unity.

However, at the second of his three concerts with the Kirov Orchestra, Valery Gergiev did his part to encourage greater civic involvement with an electrifying, magnificently played performance shot through and through with terror, grieving and triumph. Here the Kirov showed why some people (such as one of my listening companions) think that the orchestraís chemistry with Gergiev is almost unbeatable at the moment, with all due respect to some of the more creative conductor-ensemble pairings around the world.

In some ways the Shostakovich Seventh is an easy piece to like, with its reassuring span from brutality to triumph, and like Mahler, its scoring rife with virtuosic showpieces -- not to mention a few well placed, attention-getting climaxes that will certainly arouse anyone with the bad luck to doze off. Although it is a long work, the structure proceeds from darkness to light in a way that is perhaps a tad repetitive and manipulative, but undeniably effective.

In the first movement, the celebrated invasion sequence is one of the most brilliantly conceived passages in the composerís output: starting at a whisper-quiet volume, an almost insipid-sounding phrase is repeated a dozen times, each time louder and with different orchestration, culminating in an almost unbearably ferocious climax. In this instance the dance began with the Kirovís young snare drummer, huddled over his instrument with meticulous, mad-scientist concentration, backed up by a percussion colleague who not only turned pages but kept a close eye on Gergiev for cues. Coupled with the super-quiet pianissimos plucked by the strings, my mind drifted to one of those quiet summer evenings when you are awakened in the middle of the night by the soft plinking of rain on the roof.

However, a few urgent minutes later, all this seemed far away as the harrowing climax reached a volume level comparable to that attained by Dohnányi and the Cleveland Orchestra a few seasons back, when they seemed to be channeling Edgard Varèse with their hair-raising performance of Ameriques. And in the Leningradís closing pages, a tour de force for a mammoth orchestra pulsing at full tilt, Gergiev & Co. launched into the broad, stirring final theme with the Kirov strings and brass at their most radiant. In between and before this massive conclusion, there are marvelous moments like the beautiful Bach-like chorale in the desolate "Adagio," with powerful chords given a steely sheen by the Kirov brass, and sorrowful whispers showing that this great orchestra has just as much insight as volume.

According to the excellent program notes, Shostakovich had received complaints about the ending of the Fifth Symphony seeming too artificial in its closing. So for the Seventh, he made sure that his closing victory theme would be as overwhelming as the earlier invasion motto. The score calls for an immense orchestra, with eight horns, six trumpets and six trombones creating a brass section destined to impress, and so they did. And if I plead for praise for the outstanding clarinet, flute, oboe, and bassoon, it is only because some of their plaintive contributions might have been overlooked in between all the fireworks. In a most welcome acknowledgement, the sensational snare drum player was asked to stand several more times. His triumph seemed not only a glorious feat of athleticism, but a surprisingly congenial example of orchestral leadership as well. (In the final concert, this role would be assumed by the orchestraís principal trumpet, providing a star turn in Prokofievís panoramic Romeo and Juliet.)

At the final curtain call, the cheers and bravos seemed almost as deafening as the music, and there was no encore; Gergiev must have sensed that there was very little that could follow. I have heard this piece live at least four times, and the only person to attempt an encore afterward was Yuri Temirkanov, whose stunning choice was "Nimrod" from Elgarís Enigma Variations -- almost an elegy after all the violence and horror. But on this occasion, Gergievís decision surely did not leave anyone in the hall feeling shortchanged.

In a really splendid bit of programming, the opening piece was Songs From Jewish Folk Poetry, eleven songs for soprano, mezzo, tenor and a lightly scored orchestra, and a complete contrast with the violence after intermission. The three magnetic soloists -- Irena Mataeva, Ekaterina Semenchuk, and Yevgeny Akimov -- were outstanding here last summer in multiple roles in the Kirovís sextet of operas, most notably the gorgeously sung Eugene Onegin. As then, these artists gave us much more than the notes and the text; they acted these songs. Beginning with "The Lament for the Dead Child," Shostakovich uses the orchestra sparingly, with generally transparent textures although still highly acidic. Gergiev and the musicians hit just the right balances to allow the voices to emerge. This is yet another underplayed work, yet one easy to enjoy and with the composer at his most inspired and ironic. The deadpan Akimov made the most of the seventh song that contains some of the composerís most peppy, upbeat music yet is titled "Song of Misery."

As an aside, my listening companions for the evening happened to include three people whose regular diet appears to be primarily rock and jazz, and they were completely overwhelmed by the eveningís dazzling music making. It is heartwarming to be at a concert when the sheer power of the music and its interpreters are able to persuade those who may not know what they are getting into. I know I was awake for hours afterward, my brain unable to stop replaying some of the nightís most compelling moments.

Bruce Hodges


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