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Shostakovich, Symphonies No.1 and No.14: Olga Sergeeva (soprano), Sergey Alexashin, (bass), London Symphony Orchestra, Valéry Gergiev (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 13.4.06 (AO)

Programming Shostakovich’s First and Fourteenth symphonies together is certainly interesting. One is his most populist crowd pleaser, the other bleakly personal and dark. That Gergiev and could carry both off so well is a tribute to his feel for the deepest roots of Shostakovich’s music, and to an orchestra who respond brilliantly.

The First Symphony, with its pastiche of Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, is highly pictorial, as if it had been written for a ballet or movie. The composer was only 19 years old when he wrote it, after all. Although the Barshai versions are lively, lesser performers can turn it into slush. If anything, Gergiev and this excellent orchestra give it more skilful, committed playing than the symphony itself may deserve. Gergiev emphasises its muscle, and the high spirits that lift it. The soloists are given high profile, because they are good enough to take the limelight. The elements in the larger ensemble passages are clearly defined. If the composers’ devices, such as the jazzy piano are a bit banal, they are redeemed by the excellent quality of the playing.

The Fourteenth Symphony, written when the much older Shostakovich was contemplating death, is so personal and heartfelt that even the Soviet authorities could not condemn it on political grounds, despite its unequivocal subtext of protest. Gergiev approached it with an uncompromising lack of sentimentality, which illuminated Shostakovich’s clear sighted, unswerving vision. Britten may have ended his Requiem with angels, and Mahler may have sought resolution, but for Shostakovich, death was final. Like the General in Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, which Shostakovich studied when he wrote this symphony, Death always triumphs and there is nothing mere humans can do. The violins were extraordinarily chilling, in contrast to the lugubrious, dark bowing by the double bases: it gave the effect of an unearthly wind blowing over dark, subterranean depths. It gave a profoundly organic quality to the interpretation, as if it were evolving from some primeval legend of the earth. Alexashin sang as if he were making an ancient, sombre incantation. The text may be Lorca, but the impact is universal, beyond time and place.

Similarly, the second movement, the Malagueña, may be decorated with castanets at the end but here, they crack with the sound of a brutal whip: they morph into the sounds of horse’s hooves thundering in violent pursuit in the Lorelei that follows. The angular, discordant shapes in the music are perfectly articulated by strings and basic percussion – timpani and brass would be superfluous in such Spartan, precise orchestration. The dark double basses contrast with the more “human” plaintive viola and cello passages, and with the magical bell like percussion. When the glockenspiel tolls the changes, the music suddenly expands into an almost magical lyricism, carried on into the spare and beautiful dialogue between solo cello and the soprano. Again the sounds morph into another movement, the strange, unworldly Apollinaire Suicide, whose solo double bass ending eerily reinforces the cello and soprano passage a few minutes before.

Xylophone and woodblock now take front place. The two Apollinaire Waitings mock conventional marches and fanfares. Sergeeva captures the irony well. She spits out “Khokhocho! Khokchcho!” (laugh? laugh!) defiantly at the deeper and stronger voice of Death. Then the orchestra manages a feat of utter stillness, the only sound being barely audible pizzicatos on double bass, as fragile and quiet as the beating of a heart. The text is set in a prison, and evokes the inexorable, relentless ticking away of time. The stillness this orchestra captured was almost more distressing than the overtly violent eighth movement, where the strings separate in frantic discord, as the Alexashin sings of massacre.

If one still doubts Shostakovich’s political beliefs, perhaps O Delvig, Delvig might provide a clue. Again, Gergiev gets eerily chilling sounds from the strings, again evoking winds over the lost wastes of Siberia, where the text was set. In the poem, the artist may be condemned, but his art lasts beyond death. The theme repeats in Rilke’s Death of a Poet. Again, we hear the double basses trawl the depths, while the sopranos voice soars defiantly. The finale comes suddenly, introduced by the now familiar tick-tock of woodblocks, the two singers duet, announcing the ultimate finality of death. Gergiev brings the orchestra to a resounding conclusion that ends suddenly, as if broken off mid-stream. This is a disturbing symphony, and meant to unsettle complacency. Easy listening, it never will be, particularly when performed with this level of tight, uncompromising intelligence.

Anne Ozorio




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