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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 9 in E flat major, Op. 70 (1945) [26:35]
Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 99 (1946-1947) [36:56]
Leonidas Kavakos (violin)
Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. live, 16, 18 June 2012 (symphony), 17-18 June 2011 (concerto), Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, Russia
MARIINSKY MAR0524 [63:31]

Gergiev's Mariinsky Shostakovich cycle has proved a mixed bag as it has unfolded but I welcome this release warmly. For a start, the recorded sound is fantastic and this allows everything else to flourish. The orchestra sound great throughout and they play Symphony No. 9 as though to the manner born. The first movement is full of spark and wit. The first subject seems to cock a snook at just about anybody and anything. The real anarchy is kept for the second subject, whose preceding "fanfare" and drum rhythm sound like blowing a raspberry. Gergiev seems to read this just about right, with neither earnestness nor tyrannical control, but allowing everything to move at its own pace. The second movement sounds like its own Valse Triste, encompassing the way the symphony stands between the two worlds of the torture of the Second World War and the desire to move on, while knowing that Russia in 1945 still couldn't. The winds sound tremendous at the start of the Scherzo, the strings matching them brilliantly and leading the charge into the anarchy that follows. Gergiev begins the finale like a tawdry out-of-kilter procession, but it speeds up and gathers a palpable air of frenzy before launching itself headlong into the circus mood again (tambourines and all this time), crossing the finishing line with a lurch and a wink. The ensemble playing is great, but the solos are brilliantly captured throughout, too, and given a life of their own, such as the cheeky slurs in the violin solo towards the end of the first movement, or the brilliant, poignant clarinet that opens the second movement, and the keening bassoon in the Largo.

The concerto is every bit as fine, but much more intense, helped by the presence of Leonidas Kavakos. He emerges gently from the orchestral texture, almost unannounced, as gloomy as the Stygian darkness of the opening from the cellos and basses. There is a gathering sense of drama as this movement goes on, painting a rich picture of dark emotional places. Kavakos brings great soul to his playing, to the extent that the brief forays into the major key carry an almost spiritual quality to them. There is a unique songfulness to his playing when, around the 5:20 mark, his violin seems almost to pray the poignant melody Shostakovich gives him. It's a goose-bump moment which then builds up to an intense, inward passage full of drama. He sounds fantastic let off the leash in the second movement, especially in the central passage led by the xylophone and tambourine which seems to spar him on to the verge of chaos. He then becomes ever more rhapsodic as the Passacaglia develops, turning this movement into the most soulful kind of lament, neither lachrymose nor melodramatic but instead very deeply felt. His cadenza is remarkably played but also admirably structural, without any garishness or self-aggrandisement, and that sense of the structural spills over into the finale. This Burlesque has a crazy, almost unhinged energy to it, and it seems to be Kavakos who is most responsible for holding the whole thing together, with his ferocious technique and hair-raising clarity. Gergiev and the orchestra play far more than just a supporting role, however. The conductor paces the concerto like a psychological horror, daring to look at the innermost depths but refusing to reach an accommodation with them. The explosions of energy are electric, also: there is an element of frenzy to the Scherzo, for example, but it always feels boundaried, and Gergiev does a good job of steering between anarchy and control. The orchestra embrace the unusual, oriental infused aspects of the music's slow movements, but do what they do best in the faster moments, too.

A good performance of the symphony and an excellent performance of the concerto.

Simon Thompson



Previous review: Dan Morgan






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