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Gergiev’s Shostakovich (II): Mussorgsky (orch. Shostakovich) and Shostakovich, London Symphony Orchestra/Valéry Gergiev, Barbican Hall, 16.10.2005 (CC)



One never quite knows what to expect from Mr Gergiev. Personally I have experienced routine concerts, and also evenings that shone so bright they could have set entire solar systems alight. This one sat squarely in the latter bracket.

The Mussorgsky was actually a sequence of three pieces from Khovanshchina (the Preludes to the First and Fourth Acts and the Dance of the Persian Girls – in that order, here). Shostakovich's orchestration has been heard complete in recent years at the Coliseum (ENO). Shostakovich is remarkably self-effacing in these excerpts – one is just left gasping at the 'rightness' of it all. The Act I Prelude (the famous 'Dawn over the Moscow River') was ultra-smooth (while reintroducing us to the characteristic 'Gergiev hand-flutter'). Certain parts were reminiscent of the 'Coronation Scene' in Boris (Gergiev's way with accentuation). Still more impressive was the Act IV Prelude, given in huge, long-breathed string phrases. For the Persian Girls, Rimsky seemed to take the lead in the prevalent sound-world (and not only in the opening cor anglais solo, but in the main body of the dance also).

Very good, if not great, performances of these movements were scant preparation, though, for the vast 'Leningrad'. The first movement ('War') was hugely impressive in its determination. The ultra-heavy opening led to long violin lines of surprising intensity – it was clear from the start Gergiev was to allow little respite. The cumulative impact of the famous crescendo (which began ppppppp – at least - on side drum) was breathtaking, and far, far more impressive than on his Philips recording. The climax brought a real barrage of percussion, the only outcome of such perfectly controlled relentlessness. To contrast came a breathtakingly controlled bassoon solo.

The shadowy dance of 'Memories' (the second movement), its nightmarish clarinet shrieks and its deliberately mechanical feel led to the dense woodwind chording of the third movement ('My Native Field'). The strings' response was red raw. Underlying all was a real sense of interpretative depth few can even aspire to these days, and to which the orchestra responded magnificently – the resplendent brass or the burnished massed violas being only two examples that spring to mind. Finally, the monumental sense of inevitability of the final, 'Victory' movement, with its tremendous sense of opening out towards the end.

The enthusiastic reception was fully deserved. The house was packed, the queue for returns heading towards the hundreds (bizarrely people still waited for returns right to the end of the interval). Remarkable.



Colin Clarke



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