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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Shostakovich: Symphony No. 9 in E-flat major, Op. 70 (1945), Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 60 (“Leningrad”) (1941): Kirov Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, Valery Gergiev, Artistic Director, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 13.3.2006 (BH)

If Valery Gergiev wanted to expand his empire, he might consider marketing whatever vitamins he is taking that enable him to maintain his schedule. After conducting five Shostakovich symphonies (yesterday he did the First, Second and Tenth), he is continuing a run of Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa at the Metropolitan Opera, while jetting back and forth from other locales in the United States where he is presenting the same Shostakovich programs.

One of Shostakovich’s shortest symphonies, the Ninth is also one that he called “a merry little piece,” and at the time it premiered, drew some fire for not being sufficiently respectful of Soviet heroism. As Paul Schiavo writes, “To those expecting a conventional victory anthem [the elements of gaiety and, at times, ironic humor] betrayed an unacceptably frivolous response to a momentous event in Soviet history.” Indeed, after the explosiveness of the Seventh and the bleakness of the Eighth, the Ninth is riddled with high spirits.

The five short movements have moments of sobriety, but the overall impression is one of circus-like tumult. The opening Allegro revealed a few synchronization problems but one hardly cares when the music-making is this exciting. The tense Moderato showed off the distinctive Kirov woodwind timbre, and the middle Presto was taken about as rapidly as I’ve heard it, with some fantastic work on clarinet and trumpet. (The orchestra appears to rotate some principal positions, so I’m not exactly sure whom to praise.) A great, soulful bassoon was at the core of the Largo, and the mischievous last movement, ever-so-slightly out of control, left most in the audience in high spirits at intermission.

A friend said afterward, “You don’t go to hear Gergiev for precision,” and I’d have to generally agree: the ensemble veered perilously off course here and there, just for a measure or two, and then miraculously found its way back to complete the phrase, or the movement. But that said, this produced its own perverse excitement, like watching a stunt car careening down a winding San Francisco street.

In the much-longer Seventh, the viciously smoking “invasion sequence” in the first movement was taken very fast. I can see an argument for a slower, more hypnotic pace, but given the chirpy theme, some listeners are probably grateful when it ends sooner, rather than later. The second movement, with its beautiful writing for strings and winds, seemed here like some kind of perversion of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, with totalitarianism never too far in the background. The Adagio is gentle but also piercing. I had the sensation of someone knocking at a door but being turned away, only to have the final movement provide some sort of long-awaited respite. Gergiev’s energy came full bore here, with the Kirov players in commensurate fury and fieriness, with vocal audience ardor at the end for the orchestra’s tangy brass section.

Gergiev is doing all of the symphonies in an extended cycle, continuing on through the fall season. (The next set is with the Rotterdam Philharmonic on April 9 and 10.) The Seventh Symphony would be enough on its own, but with Gergiev’s tight schedule each concert must include at least two of the symphonies. (Sunday afternoon’s concert included the First, the Second and the Tenth.) Just a few weeks ago, Mariss Jansons and the Concertgebouw Orchestra brought a fantastically played Seventh to Carnegie Hall, and if Gergiev and his Kirov forces did not quite exceed the Amsterdam group’s gleaming technical prowess, they trumped them in transmitting the work’s spirit. Ideally this piece needs a bit of rawness, a serrated knife-edge rasping across the ear, to make its point. The Kirov players, with no wont for virtuosity, fairly barraged the hall with sound, and at times the physical loudness reminded me of why it’s important to hear music live. There are few things as thrilling as feeling the floor vibrate during huge orchestral hurricanes, and the Seventh has more than a few.

Bruce Hodges




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)