I first heard Valery Gergiev conduct the Leningrad at
the Royal Festival Hall some years ago and was struck by the
haunting, elegiac quality of that fine performance. It’s
a tough piece to bring off, as the recent Nelsons CBSO recording
Apart from the variable sonics I found the latter reading brash
and naively triumphal, which robs the work of its essential
ambiguities and dark equivocations. I can’t deny its banalities,
but as I remarked in that review such things take on an entirely
different cast in the right context. I also commended Ashkenazy’s
St Petersburg account on Decca,
which combines musical substance with top-notch sound. Inexplicably
it’s been deleted, although a quick Google confirms it’s
available as an mp3 download.
Gergiev’s unfolding Mariinsky Shostakovich series began
with the ‘anarchist’s hand grenade’ that is
The Nose. Well sung, played and recorded it appeared
to augur well for this project (review).
That said, I was distinctly underwhelmed by the symphonies that
followed, the much-lauded Nos. 1 and 15 especially. I was surprised
to find that the trenchancy and wit that characterise The
Nose was in short supply; moreover, the playing and sonics
weren’t on a par with that first release. Which is why
I approached this new Leningrad with some trepidation.
Would this be yet another faulty piece of ordnance that, once
lobbed, would fail to explode?
First impressions are favourable, with Gergiev striking a convincing
balance between jauntiness and foreboding in the music that
leads up to the infamous march. As for the sound it's suitably
deep and sonorous, although some listeners may find the distant
and somewhat spongy timps blunt the music’s dramatic edge.
That matters much less if one is drawn into the performance
from the start, which is exactly what happens here. Gergiev
finds an inexorable momentum and logic, and he ensures the march
is much more than a brazen piece of populist pap. There’s
genuine terror and breadth in this advance, and its wide dynamics
are well caught.
Gergiev’s even finer in the two inner movements. One of
my abiding memories of the RFH Leningrad is the chilly,
spectral quality he distils from the Moderato, originally
titled Memories. The ghostly procession is reprised here
to superb effect, and the orchestra play with great commitment
and feeling. Crucially, in the troubled Adagio Gergiev
avoids the hollow bombast that so fatally undermines Nelsons’
This extraordinary combination of quiet inwardness and profound
uncertainty is a potent reminder that this symphony is more
complex and, yes, more subtle, than its detractors would have
us believe. The range of mood and colour that Gergiev coaxes
from his band is remarkable, and the goose-bump quotient is
considerably higher than I remember from that London concert.
Any caveats? If you listen on good-quality headphones you may
find the conductor’s audible grunts and goadings somewhat
distracting. Any such reservations are quickly forgotten in
a deeply etched Allegro that’s alternately as gaunt
and as stoic as I can recall. Indeed, Nelsons’ misjudged
reading seems even more so in the light of this far more penetrating
performance. It’s always a relief to find a conductor
who delves into Shostakovich’s conflicted psyche and doesn’t
flinch from what he finds. Just take that extended peroration
at the close, so often made to sound crudely triumphant; but
as Gergiev forcefully reminds us this is a Pyrrhic victory,
its outward celebrations a mask for inner turmoil.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; the Leningrad
is a substantial and unsettling work that runs its successor
close in terms of musical coherence and sheer dramatic intensity.
As for Gergiev, he certainly makes amends for earlier disappointments;
the engineers must take a bow as well.
Unflinching, unerring and, above all, illuminating; a searing
Masterwork Index: Shostakovich