Gergiev’s Munich Shostakovich Cycle Begins

GermanyGermany D. Shostakovich: Munich Philharmonic, Valery Gergiev (conductor), Gasteig Philharmonic Hall, Munich, 2.11.2011 (JFL)

Schostakovich: Symphonies No. 1 & 4

available at Amazon
D.Shostakovich, Sy’s 1 & 15,
V.Gergiev / Mariinsky Orchestra
Mariinsky Live

available at Amazon
D.Shostakovich, Symphony No.4,
K.Kondrashin / Staatskapelle Dresden
PROFIL Haenssler

With so many variables—questions of schedules, venue-availability, rehearsal time, and mostly: financial feasibility—to content with, it is a minor miracle that the Munich Philharmonic and the Mariinsky Orchestra were able to coordinate and realize a complete Shostakovich cycle in the Bavarian capital, conducted all by Maestro Valery Gergiev. The two orchestras share the 15 symphonies between them: Nos. 1, 4, 5, 11, 14, and 15 with the Munich Philharmonic in three programs and five concerts, the rest with the Petersburg band in four concerts.

It’s a heartening project on many levels, not the least because of the cooperation between different presenters (MPhil & München Musik) and the professional marketing which cannot be taken for granted in a cultural landscape that relies on fat subsidies and heavy bureaucracy. The concert series has a tag line (the succinctly obvious “Gergiev’s Schostakovich”), its own microsite, and (allegedly) a “listening container” in a different part of town to attract some outside attention with music samples. It must have worked to some degree, for the concert on Wednesday night the Philharmonic Hall of the Gasteig was well filled beyond its subscription crowd, if hardly sold out. Apart from bringing a much appreciated Shostakovich-focus to a town that isn’t exactly teeming with opportunities to hear his work, it is also a good project for the Munich Philharmonic: The orchestra with a tendency to get above itself will find the high profile event to nurse its perpetually bruised ego and distract from the Music Director-less transition period after Christian Thielemann’s forced departure and the tenure of octogenarian emergency patch, Lorin Maazel.

The first concert in the series started appropriately enough with Shostakovich’s First Symphony. Yes, it’s a student work, but that doesn’t make it DSCH-juvenilia and the catchy work remains understandably among the most popular of his symphonies. Gergiev’s first movement suggested a classical effort, shying away—for the most part—from the bombast and grim determination of DSCH’s later work or the Soviet Shostakovich performance tradition à la Kondrashin, Mravinsky, Rozhdestvensky, and Sanderling. The fact that the performance was coherent, tight, and transparent was all the more impressive with an orchestra that isn’t used to interpret Gergiev’s odd, beat-less conducting style which looks like something of a cross between an inebriated seal policing traffic on Piccadilly Circus and ‘The Dance of The Dying Marabou’. The slow third movement in particular had its searing moments, the finale unleashed some late fury welded, as always in this work, to lament, and the many soloists absolved themselves of their task with distinction.

Not among the popular favorites is Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. The neglect is hard to explain, because it can be one of his great symphonies. I suppose it is more difficult—both to play and to grasp—than the First, and probably also than the Fifth and Seventh. It is slow-going and needs more help than any of these to come off. Likely more damaging to its reputation are, or were, the mildly disparaging remarks Shostakovich made about it, though. When Kirill Kondrashin first performed it in 1961 from the reconstructed score after almost twenty years after the initially planned but cancelled premiere, he called it a defective, verbose failure, although ‘with bits that I like’. But as Ian MacDonald suggests in The New Shostakovich: “Sometimes dismissed, in the absence of any grasp of its context or motives, as an undisciplined and bombastic failure, the Fourth Symphony, properly comprehended, emerges as a triumph of intellectual control, energetic drive, and auditory imagination. At twenty-nine, Shostakovich had created a milestone in symphonism that, under any other circumstances, would have gone on to alter the course of Western Music.”

Surely its biting, broody doom and desolation are no hindrance to DSCH-enjoyment? Because this symphony, Shostakovich’s most obviously Mahlerian, has more than any other of it. A good recording (like Kondrashin’s premiere performance from Moscow or the better sounding German premiere from Dresden), or a great one (Jansons, EMI) can pave the way. And a splendid performance (i.e. Bychkov / WDRSO, 2008) should overcome any residue resistance to the Fourth. At its best it offers raw emotion, coagulated blood, vodka, and gunpowder with unearthly flutters and threatening silences, false calms, and ever tightening musical thumbscrews. There are shrieks, brutality, claws, exhaustion, climaxes, and a pounding relentlessness that, by way of a grand coda, yield to an eerie ticking-away of the symphony, a final breath and bugle call over a blood soaked battlefield on a winter dawn. Shostakovich cannot have been too displeased with the work; he recycled plenty into the equally strange-yet-fascinating 15th Symphony.

Alas, the performance at hand was something less than all this. As he does on his recording of the Fourth (Philips), the first movement lumbered along in a way more demanding than compelling listener-concentration. Harmless trumpet snarls and unthreatening xylophone skeletons contrasted with wildly galloping Hell’s Lancers, but with uneven seams and gaps in the playing and episodic structuring, the most lasting impression of this Fourth was sheer volume. Not the worst a conductor could do, as far as an impressive experience is concerned, but not likely enough to convert new fans to this work.

Jens F. Laurson