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Shostakovich: Symphony No. 15 in A major, Op. 141 (1971), Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47 (1937), Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, Conductor, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 10.4.2006 (BH)

Shostakovich’s last, whirring toy box of a symphony, No. 15, has a gentleness from which it might be easy to infer a near-death prescience. During one recent performance a friend was struck with how sad it seemed, but tonight Gergiev found more of a gently ticking clarity, as if the composer had reached a late-life plateau with a new way of speaking that didn’t require some of his earlier megaphones. The perverse polka in the opening here evoked a slightly dilapidated circus, but one that’s simply seen a lot of use, rather than one steeped in sorrow. The odd flashes of humor don’t hurt, such as the insouciant quotation from Rossini’s William Tell. For some reason I thought of the films of the Brothers Quay, with their focus on decrepit, weathered environments sometimes filled with small, unclassifiable mechanical devices.

The middle Adagio has its tip-toeing funeral march that builds to a cliffhanger of a climax, only to dissolve into the bony clip-clops that reoccur like a skeleton knocking at the door. This performance was also notable for the solo contributions – violin, trombone and cello – all of whom received ovations afterward. The Rotterdam bassoonist, also marvelous in the previous day’s Third and Fourth symphonies, outdid himself as well. The final pages, teeming with Shostakovich’s clockwork drums, bells and wooden blocks against a vast, gorgeous string chord, seemed more elegant – less like an introspective ending to a great compositional career, and more like someone tuning up to create works that we left on earth will have to wait awhile to experience.

As he is wont to do, Gergiev strode out to the podium and almost immediately whirled around to launch the Fifth Symphony, perhaps one of the 20th-century’s greatest in the genre. Where some criticize the composer’s other symphonies for being too bombastic, too long, too dense or too inflected with the Soviet party line, the Fifth seems an almost gracefully assembled bit of classicism by comparison. Those who find the Seventh stirring but longwinded don’t make the same comment here. Those for whom the later symphonies are too bleak are fine with this one’s relative extroversion. The stern opening movement was beautifully paced – one of the hallmarks of the entire performance. Gergiev caught much more humor than some do in the second Allegretto, with the Rotterdam strings in pizzicato heaven, and more outstanding bassoon work. (Note to Gergiev: I suspect the Weber Bassoon Concerto isn’t really your cup of tea, but please consider rewarding the Rotterdam player – or perhaps with something by Gubaidulina.)

Gergiev positioned the vast Largo as the distinct emotional core. Radiant from the beginning, the orchestra rose to the occasion with perhaps the most stirring heartbeat of the entire two days’ concerts. Special praise too for the harpist, whose touching echoes of the celesta heard earlier were some of the evening’s most haunting moments.

With just the briefest pause, Gergiev set a match to the last movement, whose gleaming triumph at the end rarely fails to bring an audience to its feet (and succeeded again here). Again, while the temptation might be for some conductors to linger on the many striking orchestral details, Gergiev let us be carried aloft by Shostakovich’s sheer adrenalin and unerringly found the right moment for each sequence to crest. The climactic moments exploded just when you wanted them to. If Gergiev isn’t perhaps the technician of a Szell or Maazel, it almost doesn’t matter: he continues to display musical instincts that feel unerringly “right,” especially in this repertoire. At the moment, he is probably the world’s greatest interpreter of Shostakovich – no small crown – and the pulse of these two continually exciting concerts only bore that out.

Bruce Hodges

The series at Lincoln Center concludes this fall, with three concerts on October 23, 24 and 29.

For more information, click here: Lincoln Center - Gergiev/Shostakovich Cycle




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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)