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Shostakovich, Mahler: Mario Brunello (cello), London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 2.3.2011 (GDn)

Shostakovich : Cello Concerto No.2

Mahler : Symphony No.9

Whichever way you look at it, Shostakovich's Second Cello Concerto is a tough work. It is long and involved, and most of it is in that inscrutable and attenuated style that typifies his last symphonies. It is a product of the Brezhnev era, and many Russians will tell you that to that to make any sense of the art of those times you have to have been there. I wasn't (thank God), which may explain why listening to the work felt more like a spectator sport than an involving musical experience.


That said, everybody involved in this performance went out of their way to foster empathy between the audience and the music. It was written for Rostropovich, whose name is repeatedly checked in the programme and whose playing is continuously evoked by the playing of soloist Mario Brunello. Like Rostropovich, Brunello is the kind of cellist who can evoke every possible sort of mood and colour from his instrument, and who can instantly establish a rapport with his audience by making everything look easy. It turns out that Brunello consulted Rostropovich at length about this work, and one the most interesting results was the suggestion of a narrative programme based on Gogol's story The Overcoat. Brunello outlines this idea in an essay in the programme, and to be honest he pushes his luck with the level of detail in the analogy. It is a useful handle though, especially given the work's length and wayward form.

Brunello put in a fine performance. It wasn't note perfect, and the first movement in particular suffered from a number of intonation slips. But the spirit of Slava shone through in the combination of graceful lyricism and decisive intonation. For Shostakovich sceptics (myself included), the saving grace of many of the composer's scores is the moments of levity where his self-awareness transforms the dark mood into sardonic irony. There are precious few of those in this score, but when they come, Brunello is sure to make the most of them.

The LSO were on top form throughout the evening, especially the woodwind, who had few moments of respite in either work. Shostakovich often expects loud and decisive gestures from them, and despite the seemingly impossible high dynamics, they retained their composure throughout. There was some excellent percussion playing too. This work uses what must be among the largest percussion sections for any concerto, with many passages scored for just the soloist with percussion accompaniment. Or is it rather the soloist under siege from percussion attack? Whichever way, the sounds from the back of the stage were always clear and decisive, yet always precisely controlled.

Listening to late Mahler in the proximity of late Shostakovich illuminates the work of both composers, especially with Gergiev at the helm. Other conductors may emphasise the continuity in Mahler's Ninth Symphony, but Gergiev instead emphasises the uniqueness of each gesture and the various structural oddities that make this work unlike anything else the composer ever wrote. And like Shostakovich in his later years, the ailing Mahler takes the musical vocabulary of his earlier work but rearranges it into a completely new syntax where nothing quite adds up the way it used to.

Gergiev again takes the woodwind section to their limits here, cranking up the dynamics in their various solos and ensembles so that many of their entries seem to come out of nowhere to change the course of the music. In these times of Mahler saturation, it is reassuring to know that Gergiev can always do something new with these well-known scores. You don't expect any pussy-footing around the issue from him; you expect clear, decisive interpretations and plenty of energy. That's exactly what we got here and, as ever, the clear focussed sound of the LSO served his purposes magnificently.

Predictably perhaps, the inner movements benefited most from Gergiev's approach. His incessant driving tempos and dynamic extremes really accentuated the scherzo character of both, and there were many moments of divine inspiration. The opening of the second movement, for example, exploded on the scene with that thundering yet controlled power that is the trademark of Gergiev and his LSO forces. And just as importantly, they managed to maintain the concentration throughout the movement. The coda of the third movement was another Gergiev classic. Where other conductors (and very possibly the score itself) aim for a gradual build-up to the earth shattering cadence, Gergiev reaches that maximum intensity about two minutes before then maintains it right up to the last chord. Excessive perhaps, but utterly convincing.

Microphones were placed around the orchestra for the concert, and in the absence of any Radio 3 or Classic FM logos in the programme, I'm assuming that the Mahler performance is scheduled for inclusion in the LSO Live cycle of Mahler recordings that has been on the go for the last few years. The sheer visceral energy of this performance is going to make it the ideal Ninth for that cycle, and the lightning bolt that they will no doubt put on the cover has never been so appropriate. However, the outer movements may prove controversial in the long run, because Gergiev ramps up the power there too. That isn't necessarily a problem as most of the music can take it. To see the symphony as two scherzos surrounded by two slow movements diminishes the paradoxical complexity of those outer movements. There is plenty of energy and power in both, and Gergiev makes sure we get every volt of it. I wasn't convinced by the very opening, which lacked the mystery and ambiance that other conductors can find there, but otherwise the approach worked very well. Thankfully, Gergiev had the good sense to pull back for the coda of the last movement, demonstrating that he can do the quiet and the atmospheric just as well when he wants to. Up till then, the evening had been dominated by the woodwind and brass, but in these last few minutes, the strings came into their own with some beautifully controlled pianissimo playing. A magical conclusion, but also a reminder of the delicacy that this orchestra is capable of, but which Gergiev rarely gives them the chance to demonstrate.

Gavin Dixon


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