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Shostakovich: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 20 (“The First of May”) (1929), Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 43 (1934-36), Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, Conductor, Riverside Choral Society, Rutgers University Kirkpatrick Choir, Patrick Gardner, Director, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 9.4.2006 (BH)

May Day is the march
of armed miners.
Into the squares, revolution,
March with a million feet.

-- Final lines from Pervomayskaya, text by Semyon Isaakovich Kirsanov

In the latest installment of his complete symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich, Valery Gergiev has enlisted the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, which may not be the Kirov, but nevertheless did an alert, attentive and mostly arresting job with these two blockbusters. The rarely heard Third Symphony is just a half-hour long, including a huge choral finale (here, the excellent Riverside Choral Society, augmented with the Rutgers University Kirkpatrick Choir), but not before the composer has us chasing through a forest of tangy, quirky, often loud invention. Paul Schiavo writes that the composer “reportedly decided on a radical notion that no idea in his symphony would be repeated,” which explains the slight sense of disorientation while hearing it. The Third is constantly morphing into another organism, and similar to the Fourth, many of its ideas appear briefly and then vanish in a cloud of reinvention.

Opening with bucolic clarinets, the first Allegretto quickly escalates into tortured, shrill sonorities, leading to an Andante that is somehow not as sad as many of the composer’s later respites. The following Allegro generates furious heat that only increases, twitching and writhing even more (Allegro molto) before calming down in a parade of broad brass entrances that herald the choral finale, Pervomayskaya. Gergiev is a good match for this ensemble, and his approach to these symphonies was on the brisk side, which is overall perhaps the best way to persuade those who feel that they have dead spots here and there. A few squalls in the brass notwithstanding, the Rotterdam group poured out consistently riveting results, with some especially cogent woodwinds. Augmented with the Rutgers forces, the Riverside choir was splendid in the hymn-like finale, with special praise for executing some thrilling lower sonorities. Frankly, I didn’t hear any reason not to hear this piece more often.

After intermission, the applause had scarcely begun to die out when Gergiev reached the podium and hurled the orchestra into the caustic bowels of the Fourth. Just a few years ago I heard Gergiev ignite this piece with the Met Orchestra at Carnegie, and it is to Rotterdam’s credit that they can stand tall in comparison. Some of Gergiev’s climaxes here rivaled any volume records I can recall in a New York hall. The ferocious fugue in the first movement took off at top speed melded with unparalleled savagery, with the violins in shiveringly fast runs. The Rotterdam percussion, especially the xylophone, glittered and whacked its way to glory (I use “whacked” with praise), and kudos to the group’s bassoon and English horn players. In the Mahlerian finale, the group’s brass really came to the fore, but now with two timpanists in serious bombardment mode, before it all dissolved into the perhaps surprisingly gentle conclusion. I’m not sure any conductor on the scene at the moment makes as much sense of this wild work as Gergiev seems to do so effortlessly.

If only the celesta, in its divine introspection near the end, had not been inadvertently dragged into the gutter with an errant mobile phone. There you have it: once again, one of music’s most transfixing endings is brought crushingly back into the real world. Even Gergiev, miraculous magician that he is, can only conjure up so much distraction in the face of this abuse, and it is a credit to him and the Rotterdam players that the phone-free moments still lingered in the memory.

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)