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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
reviewed in Surround Sound

This 2015 issue has twice been reviewed on this site, with broadly comparable results in assessment. Simon Thompson felt Gergiev's Mariinsky Shostakovich cycle had hitherto “proved a mixed bag”, but found this disc to have great sound, with a good performance of the symphony and an excellent one of the concerto. Dan Morgan’s conclusion was summed up as “A perplexing symphony and an exhilarating concerto; Gergiev’s as unpredictable as ever”.

I can only agree with my colleagues about the concerto. Perhaps it is easier to admire a performance of it above one of the (under-rated) Ninth Symphony because it is one of the greatest works in concerto form of the last century, somewhere close to perfection in its design, blending the different moods of four contrasting movements into a satisfying whole, and adding a huge cadenza as an upbeat to the Burlesque finale. Its slow movement builds a to a noble transcendence with its powerful deployment of a passacaglia, an ancient device first brought to the modern violin concerto by Britten in the 1930’s. (I wonder if Ben and Dmitri chatted about that when they became friends in the 1960’s?)

I heard Kavakos play this concerto in London a few years back, pretty well I thought then, but not nearly as well as he does here live with a great Russian orchestra in St. Petersburg. There is a searching opening from the Mariinsky cellos and basses which shows the virtue of the hi-res recording, with telling presence from those lower strings, the soloist ideally balanced. The lower winds are telling also, indeed this score, which has no trumpets or trombones, has room for bass clarinet and contrabassoon. Those darker colours are impressively caught, the final quiet stroke of the tam-tam eerily tangible. Kavakos weaves his enigmatic way through and around all this with great control of tone and a poised line, at mostly soft dynamics.

He is alert and acrobatic in the scherzo, placing his short stabs at the outset with precision, and announcing that first appearance in the composer’s work of his personal acronym, the DSCH motto, with aplomb. He can also soar into the very top register of his instrument without becoming too shrill, and manage the double-stopping with the torn silk quality it needs. The passacaglia opens with the Mariinsky horns braying splendidly, Gergiev bringing just the right rhetorical breadth to the phrasing. The plangent pleading of the fiddler’s entry is very touching, as is all that follows. The cadenza is superbly played. (Was that really live? Wow!) The Burlesque lives up to its title, with fun for all the family. And although my dictionary says a Burlesque “usually involves striptease”, there is quite enough emotional nakedness in this music, and in this very fine performance of it.

I have no particular problems with the performance of the Symphony No.9, which seems to me to do all that the score requires. For all the fuss once made about the inappropriately lightweight mood of a Ninth Symphony of all things, this seems to me be the least enigmatic of them all. Rather it brings the younger Shostakovich of the early ballets and the Jazz Suite No.1 into the world of his symphonies. Or it can be seen as his equivalent of Prokofiev’s “Classical Symphony”. It is about 25 minutes long, and has the first proper sonata allegro opening in his symphonies, complete with the first exposition repeat. Of course the second subject, a march launched by trombone and snare drum, is far from Viennese! Gergiev plays that fairly straight, but it makes its mark nonetheless. There is plenty of orchestral flair and the players relish their solos, as they did for the conductor back in 2003 for Philips, when they were still the Kirov orchestra (still a very good SACD version). The differences between these two versions are slight, though the Presto was even more adroit and slightly swifter in 2003, despite the label claiming it is more than a minute longer! In short if you want a very well-played and recorded Ninth, this is a very good one – like so many others, from Kondrashin in Moscow in 1965 to Nelsons in Boston in 2016. The difference is you get a unique coupling (as far as I know), in a fine account of the great Violin Concerto No.1.

This series seems to have come to a stop with this 2015 issue, and with just numbers 12-14 to add for a complete cycle. This is odd, since numbers 2 and 3 are usually recorded only in the context of complete cycles, and those are already issued. And the Mariinsky organisation has the vocal soloists - and a magnificent bass chorus - for numbers 13 and 14. Perhaps Gergiev felt that having aborted two cycles, for Philips (numbers 4-9), and now for the Mariinsky’s own label, but completed one in Paris on film in 2013-14, those blu-ray discs can represent his final views on all the works (as well as the six concertos). For all the deserved praise garnered by Petrenko, Nelsons and others in recent years, I suspect that over time Gergiev’s work might yet come into sharper focus as a major contribution.

Roy Westbrook
Previous reviews: Dan Morgan ~ Simon Thompson

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