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Seen and Heard Concert Review


Shostakovich, Beethoven:
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus, Valery Gergiev (Conductor), Lang Lang (Piano).Barbican Hall London, 11.06.2006. (GD)


This concert was part of the ‘Great performers’ series at the Barbican and also constitutes part of Gergiev’s Shostakovich series there. The Shostakovich Symphony No 3 in E flat (1929) major (known as the ‘May Day’ symphony), together with the shorter symphony no 2 (1927) celebrating the ‘October’ Revolution are very rarely played now in concert. Thy are both quite straightforward works in form and both have a celebratory aspect emphasised by the addition of a chorus, whose texts sing directly of the significance of these events in the new Soviet ‘workers state’. No 3 is the more complex (orchestrally) and extended piece. Tonight Gergiev proved to be an excellent advocate of this genre in Shostakovich’s career. On this hearing these works definitely deserve to be played more regularly than they are.

The third symphony lasts well over 30 minutes. The economical and powerful concluding chorus (which celebrates the worker as a collective revolutionary force against capitalist and imperialist oppression) is preceded by a long and varied orchestral introduction, development (of many themes) and the lead up to the exultant chorus. It is often claimed that these works are Shostakovich merely giving lip service to the party- line, and, as such, partisan and ideological. There is some truth in this. But I don’t see this work (the sentiments expressed) as any more, or less ideological than Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’ when intoned in Beethoven’s Ninth symphony. In fact there are allusions to the Beethoven Ninth, as well as the “Eroica symphony’ in the concluding chorus of tonight’s work.

Gergiev and the orchestra revelled in the orchestral introduction’s synthesis of Russian folk themes, mock and grotesque march-themes, chorale episodes, long, ostinato-like contrapuntal configurations, among other things. The Rotterdam orchestra (obviously well trained by Gergiev) played often complex, difficult music with quite staggering displays of virtuosity, especially from the percussion, woodwind and brass. Gergiev tended to play the varied orchestral part like a kind of ‘concerto for orchestra,’ delighting in emphasizing certain textures, notably in the woodwind and brass. The LSO Chorus sung the choral conclusion in a full-bodied, full-throated manner, as befits the work. As far as I could discern their Russian sounded fine for a non-Russian choir. The usual complaints about the limitations of the Barbican’s acoustic applied particularly in the chorus; the upper registers, at full throttle, sounding distorted, and strident.

Lang Lang’s Beethoven G major concerto (No 4) was certainly in contrast to recent excellent performances heard recently by Goode and Uchida. I am not certain his rather light, florid style was in keeping with this most complexly developed ( in terms of tonal exploration and harmony)of Beethoven’s piano concertos. In the very extended development section of the opening movement, where Beethoven modulates the tonal range from G major, to C major, B Major, and B minor Lang Lang rather missed the important tonal/harmonic contrasts. Sounding more Chopin at times! Similarly the recitative/piano dialogue in the famous ‘Orphic’ Andante con moto the gradual diminution in sound (not drama) lacked the hushed/mysterious quality one hears in the best performances. The Rondo Vivace was well enough played but lacked the jagged-edged quality required for the cross-overs between piano and orchestra in the transitional and developmental passages.

Gergiev, not usually associated with standard classic repertoire, accompanied well enough in a rather small scale, toned-down manner.Gergiev is certainly a most talented conductor. I have felt that his forte, until now, lies more in ballet and opera; his very compelling Kirov recording of Borodin’s ‘Prince Igor’ being one excellent example of his art. His various recordings and performances of Shostakovich’s main works; especially the symphonies, have received mixed responses from most quarters. I have recently heard relays from public performances of him conducting the 4th, 7th and 8th symphonies. And although they were all admirable in terms of orchestral balance/texture and a certain flair for the dramatic, they also lacked a sense of symphonic coherence; this was particularly the case in the massive ‘eighth’ symphony. As mentioned at the outset, Gergiev tended to treat the less epic 15th like a concerto for orchestra. And there are many qualities in the work that would justify this treatment. Also it must be tempting for any conductor to exploit the virtuosity of the Rotterdam Philharmonic. But Shostakovich’s last, rather enigmatic; symphony is much more than a concerto for orchestra. Gergiev was observant to every detail in the score, but he failed to sustain the balance between simple lyricism at the outset of the work, and the more ironic, comic and grotesque of its soundscape. All these things registered, but they register far more effectively if the conductor (Barshai is a good example) mould these nuances in a coherent symphonic structure, as the composer requests. Too often, throughout the symphony Gergiev allowed the music to sag, and occasionally drag, as in the ‘adagio-largo’ second movement.

The adagio-allegretto finale was made to project the composer’s incorporation,’ parody’ of Wagner’s ‘Siegfried’s Funeral Music’ in a most eerie manner. Shostakovich uses Wagner’s timpani rhythm to build up towards a massive bleak climax, with rhythm underlying its projection. Gergiev slowed down considerably here, without the composer’s permission, but its overwhelming effect (in terms of sheer unleashing of horror through sound) was undeniable. The fascinating, truly enigmatic, coda with its compulsive, repetitive (pianissimo) percussion figures (superbly played) from the Wagner rhythm were uncanny in their their quiet, but menacing resolve.

Geoff Diggines


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