This is the first instalment of Gergiev’s Shostakovich cycle to have come my way. The previous issues have had mixed reviews. I didn’t love everything on this set but there is a lot to enjoy. Arguably, the Mariinsky are the most westernised of the great Russian orchestras. Their playing brings out the best of both worlds: raw, Slavic intensity vs western refinement. So it mostly proves here; but the finest contribution of all comes from their stunning strings. I’ve praised them in these pages before in Wagner and Tchaikovsky, and they take to Shostakovich as if on their home territory — which, really, they are. It is their contribution, more than any other, that makes this set worth hearing and, in fact, makes me want to seek out other instalments of the cycle.
It is No. 4 that gets the most convincing performance overall. The brash, braying sounds of the opening are very successful, but I found the waltz section of the first movement — about 8 minutes in — very convincing too. A characterful bassoon and pleading strings worked very well. The violin playing for the fugue (15 mins) is astounding: precise and well articulated but always teetering just on the verge of entropy. The great slabs of sound that bring this section to an end sound truly epic in Gergiev's hands. The strings are just as impressive in a quieter, more insidious, silky way in the fugue of the Scherzo. They can't prevent the finale from sounding episodic — it's kind of inevitable — but they ensure that each episode sounds great. The brass-led final chorale treads a fine line between triumph and catastrophe, and the strings' final, whispered wind-down is quite spellbinding. The recorded sound is excellent, too, as it is for the whole release. I was listening in two-channel stereo only. It must be even better in surround.
Those strings are also full of presence for the opening of No. 5, with rich, soulful basses and quietly passionate violins, who meander off into the main theme with gentleness and quietly suppressed longing. When the piano ostinato begins (around the 7 minute mark) there is an ominous colour to the horns' treatment of the main theme. The ensuing Allegro non troppo section is played very colourfully, though I might have wished that Gergiev had let his players off the leash somewhat. Likewise, the climax at 10:31 might stand out a little more and the ensuing unison passage could have more passion. That said, the trombones' subsequent statement of the introductory theme sounds pleasingly dark. This is then dispelled by a beautifully innocent duet for the flute and horn. Gergiev is on more playful form for the Scherzo, which has a pleasing sense of cocking a snook, while still staying just within the boundaries of the rules. Those strings also take centre-stage in a dark, soulful reading of the Largo, whose brilliant recording helps to underline the intensity, bordering on despair. The finale sets off at a real lick, a pace which is thrilling but which they find difficult to sustain. When things slow down (around 3:25) the emotional intensity heightens too – and does so successfully – and the long transition to the final D major apotheosis is well controlled, spilling over into appropriately ambiguous peroration and thunderous final bars.
No. 6 opens with a great, long sigh that seems to set the tone of despondency for the whole movement. The bleak wind chorale (around 7 minutes in) makes some alteration of tone but the mood then settles into one of abject bleakness for the whole central section, almost like gazing out over a nuclear wasteland. Only the occasional wind solos break the endless string tremolos. That barely lets up for the rest of the movement. It's a daring compositional strategy, well realised, and the shrill clarinets of the scherzo's opening burst on the ear with even greater surprise. The orchestra seems to relish this movement's to-and-fro contrast with the stasis of the previous movement, be it the bedlam of the central section or the zany return to the opening music. Gergiev plays the finale like a slightly out-of-control clockwork toy, and the coda, in particular, made me think of a hyperactive children's TV show. It won't be to everyone's taste, but I liked it, and it certainly made the reading distinctive.
Even if No. 4 is the best, that doesn’t rule out 5 and 6, which are more than worthwhile. Those Mariinsky strings definitely mean that this set is worth exploring.
Masterwork Index: Shostakovich symphonies 4-6