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Shostakovich: Marinsky Theatre Orchestra and Chorus, Valery Gergiev (conductor), Sergey Alexashkin (bass), 05 and 06.12.2006 (GD)

Tuesday 5 December 2006:  Shostakovich: Symphony No 6 in B minor, Symphony No. 13 in B flat minor, ‘Babi Yar’.

Wednesday 6 December 2006
: Symphony No. 12 in D minor, ‘The year 1917’, Symphony No. 10 in E minor.

These concerts were part of Gergiev’s Shostakovich Cycle at the Barbican.


If these two concerts were anything to go by, Gergiev’s ‘Shostakovich Cycle’ is going from strength to strength. Although overall I had a few reservations about Gergiev’s conducting, there was much to admire here, not least the wonderfully committed and idiomatic playing of the ‘Kirov’ orchestra (now unambiguously named the ‘Marinsky Theatre Orchestra.’) As an opera and ballet orchestra they are steeped in the ‘Russian’ tradition which informs so much (not all) of Shostakovich’s oeuvre. Their string tone is incredibly rich and varied; woodwinds are trenchant, lyrical and grainy, not too homogenous as with some of their more refined Western counterparts, and the brass have a cutting edge, so essential for Shostakovich, and the percussion section is second to none in terms subtle dynamic range and rhythmic power and accuracy.


Much of this orchestral excellence is, of course, due to Gergiev’s scrupulous training methods. Gergiev has proved himself to be a first-rate opera and ballet conductor (mostly in the Russian tradition, although he can conduct Verdi excellently). I have not always been so convinced of his powers as a symphonic conductor; this came to mind in the 1939 Sixth’s long introductory ‘Largo’. It was not so much that Gergiev was especially slow ( he took about eighteen minutes, which is quite swift by some standards) but the music’s basic pulse was not sustained as it should be, lacking that sense of ominous gloom and terror. One only has to listen to the recordings of the work’s premiere conductor, Mravinsky, also Kondrashin or the old Reiner recording from the forties, to hear what was so essentially missing here. Also, and uncharacteristically, there where a few sloppy trumpet entries. The two remaining fast movements for the most part went brilliantly well. The second movement allegro was impressive for the virtuosic playing alone, but it does need a more sustained grip of the overall contour from the conductor… again listen to Mravinsky or Kondrashin! Initially Gergiev took the last movement at a real ‘Presto’, the Kirov strings managing this very fast tempo with amazing alacrity. But as the movement progressed Gergiev made some unnecessary gear shifts which didn’t really come off. The carnivalesque final boisterous flourishes, although excellently balanced lacked that final festive and uninhibited ironic vulgarity, so essential to Shostakovich.

The ‘Babi Yar’ symphony (really an extended orchestral song cycle with male chorus) was, and is one of the most controversial of Shostakovich’s works; dealing, as it does, with anti-Semitism, collaboration and genocide. For me the issues around Russian anti-Semitism, from its Tsarist manifestations, to the horrors of the Second World War, and now, are enormously complex. Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem ‘Babi Yar’ has a direct and powerful message relating to the arrogance of power regimes and the lethal dangers of acquiescence. A theme as resonant today as it was in Soviet Russia of 1962 when the work was premiered under Kyril Kondrashin in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire. Now it is probably more informative to see the work’s political/ethical message in a more general contextual framework. Of course Shostakovich’s music is so powerful and direct that the work can be experienced in its own purely musical terms, although one would miss a lot of Shostakovich’s, Yevtushenko’s powerfully intermeshed political/musical irony.

From start to finish Gergiev’s realization of the work’s idiom was singularly impressive, and here one must include the exemplary intonation of the narrative by the Russian bass Sergey Alexashin and the twenty-eight strong Marinsky Theatre male choir. From the sinister B flat minor upward opening flourish on the trumpet, one felt totally inside the intense narrative which was translated into English on an auto-screen above the stage… an adequate compromise! The massive choral/orchestral declarations against anti-Semitism at the end of the first movement, with the haunting trope of Anne Frank’s doom at the hand of the Nazi’s had a universal message, as delivered here, which could include all forms of racial, religious intolerance. Gergiev took the ‘allegretto’ middle section of the movement quite swiftly but with tremendous bite from the brass/percussion underlining each note of sardonic irony.

‘Humour’, the second movement Allegretto, is surely one of the composer’s most original and trenchant musical depictions of political protest through musical irony and theatrical bite. The piece could have come straight out of the composer’s earlier ‘controversial’ opera ‘Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District’. Gergiev is in his element in such pieces, his projection of the grotesque rhythmic inflections in brass/percussion, at every celebration of laughter as a subversive ploy against all forms of imperial and political pretension and arrogance, sounded positively Bakhtinian in their stamping C major insistence, Alexashkin understanding each narrative inflection with stunning vocal confidence and range.


The double slow movement, incorporating ‘ ‘In the Store’, and ‘Fears’ is a powerful commentary on the treatment of women in Russia, and on ‘Fear’ as becoming part of an all pervasive and infective ideological internalization; Russia as permeated by fear, but also inspiring fear in others…a kind of false official overcoming of fear… came over compellingly in its full atmospheric and disturbing projection, with wonderfully sustained dark string tone and a lower brass and bass tuba intonation which had all the sinister brooding power of ‘Hagen’s Watch’ from the first act of ‘Götterdämmerung’.

The last movement ‘Careers’ had a particular significance for Shostakovich, summed up in Yevtushenko’s lines ‘I make a career for myself by not making one’. The poet’s comment on Galileo as being misunderstood, ridiculed, persecuted (although ultimately escaping execution), and could also well apply to Giordano Bruno or Spinoza. Shostakovich typically uses the major key simplicity he had deployed in his Piano Quintet and Eighth Symphony but this almost naďve simplicity ( like a remote dream) is underscored by more sinister resonances. Of course the whole theme of careers and career advancement links in with the infective themes of fear and incorporation/acquiescence of the previous double slow movement…Shostakovich even alludes to this in a major key inversion of one of the more brooding announcements of ‘fear’. In this sense the music is some of the most personally significant for the composer: how to project the conscience and responsibilities of the artist/composer? As the rocking figures in strings and woodwind die away inconclusively we are reminded that Shostakovich never resolved this ethical/ aesthetic dilemma. The whole orchestra and chorus seemed powerfully moved at this haunting conclusion. The batonless Gergiev (who wisely used the score) held the fermata of silence for a few minutes before gesturing applause, which when it came seemed wholly inappropriate. Perhaps some pieces should be accompanied by the instruction to audiences that silence (which Shostakovich understood well in musical and political terms) is the best response.

The coupling of the Twelfth and the Tenth symphonies proved to be most interesting and very productive in terms of charting the composer’s symphonic development. In the West the Twelfth has long been seen as a lesser work; a kind of official Soviet Party propaganda piece. A certain denomination of Western opinion has elaborated a great deal of rhetoric (mostly conjectural) to the effect that Shostakovich inscribed hidden codes in his music, highly cynical and critical of the Soviet regime. This is especially true of the Twelfth. It is seen as a well composed, but hollow piece of promotional bombast for the the composer’s political masters, a kind of cryptic, cynical commentary on the Revolution (October 1917) he was supposed to be celebrating. There is absolutely no conclusive proof of this. Shostakovich did indeed have a highly critical and complex relationship with the regime, but there is overwhelming evidence that he supported the ideals of the Revolution itself in its historical context.


As for cynicism and cryptic irony, this abounds in virtually all his major works and can be translated in purely musical terms. To reduce Shostakovich’s music to some crude anti-communist programme, as many Western commentators have done, is as wrong-headed as some of the most vulgar forms of    Marxist reductionism. Gergiev, who is highly suspicious of reading too much ideological content into Shostakovich, wisely concentrated on the musical aspects of this tautly structured piece. And he proved tonight that the question of bombast is largely a matter of interpretation. True, there is an element of popular ( even folk inflected) celebration in the piece, particularly the repeated fanfares of Revolutionary triumph which conclude the work; but do we impute extra-musical political meaning to, say, the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony with its popular, celebratory fanfares and folk inflections? Under Gergiev the symphony never sounded over-rhetorical or bombastic, as it can do. He took the piece as one continuous and interlinked symphonic structure. The opening theme on celli and double basses was made to cohere with the main allegro (here a true allegro). For the dramatic development section Gergiev produced from the orchestra the most incisive rhythms, cross-rhythms. The frenzied brass/percussion interjections were effective through being accurately paced and articulated rather than just bashed-out. The short forceful scherzo which initiates the depiction of the attack on the Winter Palace (used effectively in the Eisenstein film ‘October’), was again inflected with tremendous rhythmic bite and contrast, the battery of percussion (superbly played) never obliterated the important configurations in strings and woodwinds. The noble melody initiated by unison horns (‘The Dawn of Humanity’) had a surging onward thrust here, leading inevitably to the triumphant D major coda with its repeated fanfares on brass and percussion, which, as Gergiev reminded us, are never just bland repetitions, but statements which both use from previous motives and develop to a noble conclusion in their own right.

Gergiev concluded tonight’s concert with a well considered and thoughtful reading of the Tenth Symphony of 1953. The Tenth is, of course, totally different in musical structure and temperament to the Twelfth. Shostakovich gave it no programme, although that has not deterred many in the West, and in Russia, from imposing the most detailed programmatic assumptions on the symphony. The brilliantly economic Allegro Second movement is seen as a portrait of Stalin - but could it not equally be seen as a portrait of Harry S. Truman, or Maurice Papon? Or, more interestingly, in musical terms, as one of the most powerful, economic exercises in ostinato dynamics and rhythmic contrast? Gergiev held the opening movement’s ‘Moderato’ pace very well, making well adjusted rubato for the dance sections for clarinet and low flute. After the chromatic, diatonic (from G major) central climax the long held tonic pedal  refrain was excellently managed and kept moving to initiate the concluding ambiguous theme on two piccolos above veiled strings. It almost goes without saying that Gergiev and the orchestra were hors con-cours in the second movement allegro, with just right degree of rhythmic contrast to introduce the canonic brass interjections for the sinister mid-section of the movement.


The Allegretto third movement made its point very well, especially the composer’s musical monogram DSCH, initiated by a stabbing figure in the woodwind, and developing out into a tonal translation of the DSCH motive in D-flat, and C and B natural (brilliant composing?) Gergiev allowed for considerable tempo modification to underline the special significance of these autobiographical points, although the piece can make its point just as well without tempo modification. The finale was well contrasted between the poised (tonally ambiguous) Andante opening, and the Allegro main section. Gergiev made the return of the DSCH theme, towards the coda, cohere well with rest of the movement. The resilient and triumphant? coda in which the composers musical signature is intoned on horns and timpani with great rhythmic emphasis made its point here without sounding contrived or underlined (as in some more rhetorical performances). It evolved as a most fitting symphonic conclusion. Again mostly Western critics have insisted that this use of a musical autograph is Shostakovich stamping his own individuality against a repressive Soviet regime. Maybe so. But do we accord the same political significance to a composer like J S Bach (whom Shostakovich greatly admired) who frequently used the BACH musical monogram in his works? Is this Bach stamping his individuality against a context of Lutheran/Aristocratic hegemony? Can we not see it as simply another facet of each composer’s musical innovation? Until we start to see Shostakovich in more musical, less conjectural/rhetorical terms, we shall miss much of the endless musical value and invention to be found in this great modern composer. Tonight Gergiev gave us a lesson in how to listen to Shostakovich in ‘musical’ terms.




Geoff Diggines



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