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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
Reviewed as a 24/96 Studio Master from Hyperion
Pdf booklet included
MARIINSKY MAR0524 [63:31]

In preparation for this review I revisited some of Valery Gergiev’s earlier Shostakovich recordings with the then Kirov Orchestra. I was struck by how communicative these performances are — how fallible even. I know from the concert hall that this conductor has a special way with these symphonies, so I must confess to being mildly disappointed by some of his Mariinsky remakes. Not the Leningrad though, which is as powerful and uncompromising a performance as you’ll ever hear. His recording of The Nose is a blockbuster too. By comparison his recent Mussorgsky album seems rather cool and disengaged.

Gergiev’s Mariinsky cycle has taken a surprising turn in that the latest instalment pairs a symphony and a concerto. That’s most welcome, especially when the soloist in the latter is the distinguished Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos. As always there are many fine recordings of both works to choose from. In the case of the symphony my go-to versions are Kiril Kondrashin (Melodiya, HDTT), Bernard Haitink (Decca) and Mark Wigglesworth (BIS). The last of these, superbly recorded, is coupled with a very persuasive account of the least-loved Twelfth (review).

The concerto is also well represented in the catalogue, with classic versions ranging from the work’s dedicatee David Oistrakh through to more recent ones from the likes of Christian Tetzlaff (Ondine) and Hilary Hahn (Decca, Euroarts). My own favourite is Maxim Vengerov’s 1994 recording with Mstislav Rostropovich and the London Symphony Orchestra in splendid form (Teldec). The latter was originally paired with a thoroughly satisfying account of Prokofiev’s Op. 19 concerto.

Before listening to this new Mariinsky release I went back to Gergiev’s Kirov recording of the symphony. Recorded by Philips in 2002 it’s a warm and very approachable performance of a rather bluff - occasionally opaque - piece. Even after all this time Shostakovich’s Ninth retains an element of surprise – it wasn’t the post-war tub thump the authorities were hoping for – and that makes for a most entertaining ride. Haitink and the London Philharmonic bring a clarity and snap to the music that’s invigorating; that couldn’t be more different from Kondrashin’s boisterous, somewhat dishevelled reading, which has a vitality and verve – especially in the first movement – that’s irresistible. Subtle it isn’t, but unmissable it is.

So, where do Gergiev and his Mariinsky players fit in? For starters the Allegro is more closely recorded than his Kirov account; superficially at least that seems impressive, but after a while I began to question Gergiev's rather severe response to this jaunty - even slightly manic - movement. Is this really the effect - the mood - that Shostakovich intended? Kondrashin is bold and impulsive, Haitink cool but without diminishing the music's quirky character; in their very different ways these two approaches illuminate this music in ways that Gergiev and his Mariinsky players fail to do. If it’s a question of setting a particular tone then I think Gergiev has misjudged it this time around. Ditto the superbly played Moderato, which doesn't tweak the ear or engage the brain as readily as the Kirov version does.

I certainly don’t want to impose some kind of template on either the piece or Gergiev’s interpretation of it, but after just two movements I’m much less persuaded by this new performance than I'd hoped to be. And while the Mariinsky recording is more controlled than the ageing Melodiya one the latter's rough edges suit Kondrashin’s more volatile way with the score. At this juncture I began to wonder whether, under Gergiev’s tutelage, these players have succumbed to the svelte metropolitanism that's made so many orchestras sound the same. Yes, they are very accomplished, but where’s the distinctive, idiomatic sound we tend to associate with Russian bands?

Take the Presto, for instance; propulsive and cleanly articulated it seldom acknowledges the possibility of a subtext. And that’s the nub of it: one doesn’t have to be obsessed about decoding Shostakovich’s music – a pastime I tend to avoid – to want something more than just the bare, unvarnished notes. Gergiev Mark 1 digs a lot deeper and discovers a binding narrative in the process. Of course this could be down to less-than-satisfactory performances on these two nights rather than a conscious change of interpretation. Most likely it's a combination of the two, for it's the conductor who engenders so much bluster and banality in the finale. Once again the general tenor of this performance is at odds with what one expects from this symphony. Gergiev's grunts and goads are very distracting as well.

That’s unsettled me, but for all the wrong reasons. Is it a question of over-familiarity, even of imprinting on old favourites? I doubt it, for I’ve heard many contrasting accounts of the Ninth that still ‘work’ in the end. They cajole, even infuriate, but they seldom fail to cohere and communicate. Incidentally, there's no mention of Classic Sound Ltd in the booklet, athough James Mallinson is credited as the producer on the symphony; Vladimir Ryabenko is listed as both the producer and engineer on the concerto. Indeed, it’s a measure of how good the Philips engineers were that the sound of the Kirov Ninth is far more satisfying than that of this impenetrable remake.

Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto dates from 1946-1947, but as the composer was still out of favour post-Zhdanov the work was only premiered in 1955. It’s one of Shostakovich’s most hauntingly beautiful works and Vengerov’s full, rather melancholy tone in the Nocturne seems entirely apt. As if that weren't beguiling enough Rostropovich and the LSO offer rapt support throughout. The Teldec recording, made at London's Abbey Road Studios, is both detailed and refined. Goodness, I’d quite forgotten what a luminous performance this is, and how beautifully shaped.

I'm delighted to report that Gergiev captures the sad, equivocal mood of that opening movement, and Kavakos, although more ethereal than Vengerov, spins a light, singing line that can’t fail to impress. Gergiev’s reading is more strongly contrasted than Rostropovich’s, and that creates a compelling sense of variety and purpose. Indeed, there’s a depth of feeling here that’s most welcome, and for the first time in this review I felt completely engaged by the Mariinsky's music-making. Even the recording is more finely calibrated, with timbres nicely rendered; that's especially true of the strange, darkly dancing Scherzo. Kavakos is wonderfully involved and animated too.

This is shaping up to be a very good performance. The majestic elements of the Passacaglia – a movement that's prone to plodding – are well managed, and the Mariinsky team capture the orchestra’s Stygian bass lines better than Teldec’s do. Moreover, the Mariinsky's Passacaglia has a breadth - and a more pronounced pulse - that help to shape and propel this slow-moving music rather well. Vengerov and Rostropovich are at their nimble best in the Burlesque, but Gergiev and Kavakos are every bit as stylish and entertaining. At this point I realised my loyalty to Vengerov and Rostropovich – although still intact – had been sorely tested.

It’s always a relief when a review takes a turn for the better, especially when a number of lukewarm reviews might suggest I’ve got it in for Mr Gergiev. These are both live recordings – sans applause – yet it’s the concerto that has that elusive caught-on-the-wing quality that only a live event tends to offer. If I were being charitable – and why not, after that terrific second half? – I’d say Gergiev's Mariinsky Ninth just didn't gel on the nights in question. Of course the beauty of downloads is that you can cherry-pick from a given album. No prizes for guessing which bits I’d choose here.

A perplexing symphony and an exhilarating concerto; Gergiev’s as unpredictable as ever.

Dan Morgan
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