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Shostakovich: The Nose - Gergiev

Shostakovich: The Nose - Gergiev

Mariinsky  MAR0501 (2 discs)

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Opera


Shostakovich: The Nose

Kirov Opera
Valery Gergiev (conductor)


Set in St Petersburg, Dmitri Shostakovich's satirical opera The Nose received its premier in 1930. Based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol, its absurdist plot revolves around the exploits of a pompous government official and his nose. After a visit to the barber, the nose absconds from the man's face and takes on a life of its own; the pretentious bureaucrat is reduced to desperation, frantically searching the city for his lost appendage.

Although primarily a comic opera, The Nose touches on the struggle between the individual and society - here portrayed by a cast of over 80 characters - and its spiky score is a 1920s modernist masterpiece from the prodigiously talented composer.

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Review by Graham Williams - June 2, 2009

The new Mariinsky label could not have got off to a more auspicious start than with this stunning new recording of Shostakovich’s first opera ‘The Nose’, a work based on a short story by Nicolai Gogol and premiered in Leningrad in 1930. The only currently available commercial recording of the opera of which I am aware is the 1975 Melodiya set conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky. Originally issued on LP and then transferred to CD in 1988, this 33 year-old set still sounds remarkably vivid, but must yield in all respects to this new Gergiev version recorded in the Mariinsky Concert Hall from 15-23 July 2008.

Shostakovich began to compose the work in 1927-28 shortly after the premier of his 2nd Symphony. This was at a time when the influence of Western avant-garde music and especially experimental theatre excited the young composer immensely. Works by Krenek, Schreker, Hindemith, Milhaud and Berg, (Wozzeck in particular) were avidly absorbed by him, culminating in the unlikely choice of the Gogol story for his opera. Its humorous and satirical plot mocks among many things the social pretensions of Tsarist civil servants and their milieu. Not surprisingly such an anarchic piece soon attracted the attention of the Soviet authorities and charges of ‘Formalism’ and ‘anti-Soviet escapism’ were levelled against the composer. ‘The Nose’ then virtually disappeared until a Moscow revival in 1974, attended by the composer, brought it back into the limelight.

In this surrealist opera a pompous and arrogant collegiate assessor, Kovalev, (brilliantly acted and sung here by Vladislav Sulminsky) wakes up one morning to find that his nose has mysteriously vanished. In the course of desperately searching for it, Kovalev meets his nose dressed as a high-ranking civil servant but finds it reluctant to return to his face. His attempts to regain his haughty appendage occupy the rest of the piece.
The opera moves through its ten scenes at a tremendous pace and teems with dazzling musical ideas. The cast of characters exceeds seventy; so many of the singers, as well as chorus members, double up their roles. Gergiev has a very strong ensemble in his St Petersburg Company and there are no weak links anywhere in his casting.

Shostakovich’s music is harsh and abrasive as befits the opera’s action and though scored for a virtuoso chamber orchestra, it includes such exotic instruments as balalaikas, domras and a flexatone. There are a number of brief orchestral ‘interludes’ linking the various scenes, including the astounding three-minute ‘Intermezzo’ for percussion that will doubtless be used by many hi-fi buffs to demonstrate the quality of their systems. This music is in Gergiev’s blood and his performance captures both the sardonic humour and occasional tenderness of the music with matchless flare.

The experienced recording team led by James Mallinson (producer) included recording engineers John Newton and Dirk Sobotka of Soundmirror who not only were responsible for the DSD re-mastering of the Living Stereo series on SACD but also the new BSO Classics label. They have achieved a convincing re-creation of a theatrical experience, though the use of stage movement and the marvellous acoustic of the Mariinsky concert hall. The 5.1 multi-channel recording is breathtaking in both its impact and clarity and depth.

The lavish 99-page booklet that accompanies the set contains the libretto printed in what for most listeners will be user-unfriendly Russian (Cyrillic) and English. (It does include, however, a pronunciation guide to the phonetic value of each letter of the Cyrillic alphabet!) There are also biographical thumbnails of the main performers, colour photographs of the Mariinsky Theatre as well as the magnificent new Mariinsky Concert Hall where these discs were recorded. The discs are conveniently packaged in a standard 2-disc CD case within a cardboard slipcase.

All lovers of Shostakovich will want to add this important recording to their collection. It could hardly be bettered in terms of both sound and performance. An outstanding release.

Copyright © 2009 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net

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