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Gergiev’s Shostakovich (I): Schumann (orch. Shostakovich) Cello Concerto No 1 and Shostakovich Symphony No 8, Johannes Moser (cello), London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (conductor), Barbican Centre, 15.10.2005 (AR)



Valery Gergiev’s Shostakovich Cycle, which is part of the Barbican’s Great Performers 2005-2006 Series, kicked off with a rare performance of Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto No. 1 orchestrated by Shostakovich. Schumann was essentially a composer for piano and the voice, as well as being an orchestrator of the first rank, although one gets the feeling that he was always writing with the piano in mind. Like Mahler’s re-orchestrations of Schumann’s Symphonies, Shostakovich’s re-orchestration of the Cello Concerto No. 1 remains faithful to the composer’s style without being slavishly ‘authenticist’.

It’s arguable that Shostakovich’s orchestration is superior to that of Schumann’s in its textural balance and dynamic contrasts. Whilst Shostakovich’s orchestration is tasteful and does not tamper with Schumann’s style and melancholic mood, his own acidic style and droll wit still come through, notably in the shrill and projected woodwind. Another subtle and imaginative touch was the adding of the harp in the Langstram.

German-born cellist Johannes Moser played throughout with a serene poetic grace and eloquent poignancy. In the central Langstram Moser never sounded sluggish or sentimental and made his cello sing with a sleepy slumber. Gergiev’s conducting – baton free – was elegant and incisive, securing suave and stylish playing from the LSO: an inspired and moving performance.

In the current controversial climate of the British Government’s Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, I was pondering on Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony, Op. 65; composed in 1943 during the siege of Leningrad, it has often been nominated as a ‘war symphony’ but could easily be interpreted as a ‘terrorist symphony’ - ‘invoking terrorism’ or ‘inciting terrorism’.

Gergiev’s paradigm performance evoked the true sensation of terrorism in the explosive climax of the first and last movements like no other performance that I have heard. Gergiev’s conducting was far tauter, and with quicker tempi, than Rostropovich’s recent monumental account with the LSO – but it never sounded rushed, merely more urgent, with a surging, throbbing pulse throughout making all the movements merge into a unified whole.  The opening of the Adagio of the first movement was dark and brooding, with the cellos having the appropriate grainy earthiness. The LSO strings shone with a sense of poetic melancholia. Sometimes this section can drag but Gergiev kept the pulse flowing naturally, gradually building up to the drama to come.

The shattering percussive climax in the Allegro non troppo followed by the shuddering tremelando strings, physically went through me, making me shudder with an uncontrollable spasm such was the intensity of the percussive playing. This reign of terror was truncated by the slicing strings, throwing us into a wilderness rendered even more desolate by the sad solo cor anglais. This section was unbearably poignant and moving in its stark contrast to the emotional terror before it.

Gergiev made the Allegretto sound rugged with the woodwind appropriately shrill, especially the piercing piccolo of Sharon Williams. The percussion were manic and brutal, culminating with a daringly measured three final thuds. The Allegro non troppo had bite, with the strings sounding acidic yet weighty (with stabbing gestures), whilst the trombones were wonderfully strident and raucous. The accompanying hard and dry bass drum thuds had an intensity that I have never heard before. After the final beheading percussive deathblows, the music shifted mood and metre, suddenly sounding like the intimacy of a string quartet with dance-like rhythms and a cynical droll humour. The closing flute solo had a chilling glacialis which made the hall freeze over in silence. After this intimate interlude the sounds slowly melted into nothingness. This was the most eerie, mesmerising ending I have ever heard of this work.

Gergiev kept his arms raised to stop the anticipated applause and it worked for thirty seconds of sublime silence. I felt devastated and elevated, exhausted but exhilarated and the audience’s wild response for Gergiev and the LSO only became more thunderous when Gergiev held this great score aloft.


Alex Russell


Further listening:


Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 65,  London Symphony Orchestra, Mstislav Rostropovich (conductor): LSO Live - LSO0060

Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 65 Kirov Orchestra, St. Petersburg; Valery Gergiev (conductor): Philips: CD: 446 062-2



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