Shostakovich: Symphonies 2 & 11 - Gergiev

Shostakovich: Symphonies 2 & 11 - Gergiev

Mariinsky  MAR0507

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 2, Symphony No. 11 "The Year 1905"

Mariinsky Orchestra
Valery Gergiev (conductor)

Shostakovich's Second and Eleventh Symphonies are both inspired by Russian revolutions. The Eleventh Symphony, "The Year 1905", marks the bloody revolution of its namesake year. It is an astonishingly atmospheric symphony, of cinematic breadth, especially the second movement which depicts the Bloody Sunday massacre in St Petersburg.

Symphony No 2 was written to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution. Though it is a much shorter work than the Eleventh, clocking in at less than 20 minutes, it is by no means any less dramatic. Although dismissed as an experiment by the composer later in his career, it remains an important step in the development of one of history's greatest symphonists. Here Valery Gergiev, along with the Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus, delivers definitive performances of both works.

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Recorded at the Mariinsky Concert Hall, St Petersburg, 14-16 and 18-20 February 2009 and 4-6 February 2010

Producer: James Mallinson
Engineers: John Newton and Dirk Sobotka, Jonathan Stokes and Neil Hutchinson for Classic Sound Ltd
Reviews (1)

Review by Graham Williams - November 30, 2010

As in the case of the first release of his new Shostakovich cycle with the Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev has chosen to couple two highly contrasted symphonies, both in terms of scale and style, from opposite ends of the composer's career.

Symphony No. 2 subtitled 'To October' was composed in 1927 at the time when Shostakovich had begun work on his opera 'The Nose'.The authorities that commissioned the piece, following the success of the composer's 1st Symphony, expected something in the same vein, but what they received was a work hardly recognizable as by the same composer. This short symphony (here lasting19'25”) uneasily attempts to combine the young Shostakovich's appetite for the exploration of new experimental orchestral sonorities with a closing choral section that embodies the sentiments expressed in the work's inscription 'Proletarians of the World Unite!'

Gergiev gives a lucid and unexaggerated performance of this problematic piece. He manages to achieve clarity in both the complex opening section and turns the hyperactive second part with its scurrying woodwind, piercing piccolos and screaming trumpets into a veritable tour-de-force thanks to the fine playing of his orchestra. The factory siren that opens the choral section sounds more realistic than on many other recordings I have heard, and the superb Mariinsky chorus sing the setting of Alexander Bezymensky's banal and sycophantic poem in praise of Lenin with surprising conviction.

How you will react to Gergiev's urgent performance of the Symphony No. 11 'The Year 1905', will be very much determined by your view of the music itself. Though ostensibly concerned with the events of January 1905 when Tsarist troops massacred peaceful demonstrators in St. Petersburg's Palace Square and which provoked the first Russian revolution, the symphony has over time been seen to have deeper resonances. Events such as the brutal killing of 600 demonstrators in Budapest during the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 and more recently the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square have given the piece a lofty humanist image far removed from its early characterisation in the West as a tawdry film score full of simplistic Soviet propaganda.

There are wide differences of approach to be found when surveying the many recordings of this epic symphony and therefore personal preference will play a more than usual role when choosing a recording for one's collection.
A glance at the timings on this disc for each of the symphony's four movements (I 15'11”, II 17'17”, III 10'29”, IV 13'43”) indicates that, for Gergiev, creation of mood takes second place to forward momentum, and at 56'40” his is the swiftest performance amongst the comparisons I have made with other versions. These include Barshai, Pletnev, Wigglesworth, Kitajenko, Lazarev and Rostropovich, whose LSO Live recording clocks in at an astonishing 72'24”.

It could be argued that in view of the relative paucity of striking thematic material for the 1st movement, entitled 'The Palace Square', Gergiev's swifter-than-usual tempo is a plus point. Certainly any monotony is avoided, but at the cost of fully conveying the movement's chilly and oppressive atmosphere . The distant Mahlerian fanfares that permeate this movement are carefully balanced, and their presence in the surround channels towards the movement's end do provide an extra glacial frisson.
There is a similar mixture of gains and losses in the other three movements. Gergiev skilfully controls the build up to the massacre in 'The Ninth of January' without any loss of tension, but when the brutality is finally unleashed the cumulative effect is less overwhelming than that heard on other versions. This is due partly to Gergiev's driving pace, but also the less forwardly balanced percussion. 'In memoriam', however, works very well at Gergiev's flowing tempo, one that stresses the song-like quality of the music while not short-changing the impact of the central funeral march.
Gergiev's account of the defiant finale studiously avoids bombast and the magnificent playing that he elicits from all sections of the Mariinsky Orchestra ensures that his invigorating and clear-sighted conception of this symphony is carried through to a triumphal conclusion.

The recordings of both symphonies were made in the Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, and though two different recording teams were used (Jonathan Stokes / Classic Sound for Symphony No.2, and John Newton and Dirk Sobotka for Symphony No.11) I could detect no real audible differences in the results obtained. The mastering was carried out by Classic Sound. It is perhaps worth mentioning that, in order to achieve the necessary impact, this SACD does need to be played at a considerably higher volume level than most of those mentioned above.

This coupling is undoubtedly a competitive release in what is an already saturated market for Shostakovich symphonies, even on SACD.

Copyright © 2010 Graham Williams and


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