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Radical Shostakovich Symphonies From the Mariinsky Orchestra

He was the perfect composer for another time and place, and in the post 9/11 era his work has taken on a tragic new significance. One of Dmitri Shostakovich’s greatest achievements was to give voice to a people who’d been terrorized. Apprehension and dread are everywhere in his music beginning with the wrenching anguish of his Fifth Symphony well past the venomous, vengeful Tenth and into his string quartets of the early 1960s. The most recent recording of Shostakovich by Valery Gergiev with the Mariinsky Orchestra features richly dynamic versions of two radically different works, Shostakovich’s Second and Eleventh Symphonies. Any preconception of Gergiev as a heavyhanded conductor goes out the window here: this version of the Eleventh is a masterpiece of peaks and valleys, terrifying crescendos and stunned, deathly, practically horizontal atmospherics (it’s also recorded much more quietly than previous releases by this orchestra).

The Eleventh Symphony has been described as cinematic, which is accurate as far as style is concerned. And while it was inspired by the brutal reprisals that followed the 1905 uprising in Russia, it is not any kind of linear depiction of those tragic events. And while it could be interpreted as foreshadowing the triumph of the Communists over the Tsar, it is just the opposite, a portrait of the Tsars’ victims as a metaphor for the millions murdered by Stalin. The second movement is officially supposed to portray the January, 1905 massacre in the St. Petersburg city square, but this massacre appears throughout the piece again and again: after the evocative tone poem that opens the first movement; more dramatically in the second, over and over, and in the third, adagio movement, as if to illustrate the cossacks blowing up a funeral procession (which US drone aircraft have done in Iraq and Afghanistan, in case anyone is wondering). The dynamics all the way through are brilliantly nuanced despite the fireworks all around: for example, a trumpet reveille toward the end of the second movement sounds perfectly distant from the bereavement of the dirge that follows, detached and oblivious to the horror left in its wake.

Likewise, the martial fourth movement offers the feel of a parade nobody wants to march in: to Shostakovich’s infinite credit, he doesn’t end it with the triumphant cymbal crash that punctuates the end of its first segment, instead letting it go on, sad, still and wary until a final reminder of the massacre. Shostakovich just won’t let it go: in 1957, with Stalin dead and Krushchev’s “thaw” underway, he didn’t have to anymore.

The Second Symphony, which opens the album, is a curio. Shostakovich was 21, ambitious and eager to accept commissions from Stalin’s henchmen over at the music office when he wrote it, just two years after his auspicious First Symphony. This wasn’t even designated as such until later and hasn’t aged well despite the young composer’s enthusiastic and considerably original embrace of post-Stravinsky atonalism. The ensemble play (and sing) its martial bombast with a straight face. It was viewed as propaganda at the time it appeared and seems even more so now. Without knowing the author of these two symphonies, one would hardly guess Shostakovich to have written the first one. But the second leaves no doubt. Harmonia Mundi’s distributing this one stateside.

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December 7, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Denis Matsuev/Valery Gergiev/Mariinsky Orchestra – Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.3./Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

The elephant in the room is that with such a glut of Rachmaninov available on both mp3 and vinyl, did it make any sense to make this recording at all? Answer: a resounding, fortissississimo YES. Everyone who’s a fan of this stuff has his or her favorite versions. Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony did a wonderfully rousing recording of the Piano Concerto No. 3 with Abbey Simon on piano; for sheer velvet sonics, nothing beats the version of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini that Philippe Entremont did with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra roughly a half-century ago. Both of those achieved broad circulation and are commonly available wherever used vinyl is sold (you wouldn’t really settle for icky mp3s, would you?). So why bother with the new recording by pianist Denis Matsuev with Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra? Because it’s just as good as those two if not better. And for what it’s worth, it’s also one-stop shopping, two classics for the price of one without the extraneous filler that sometimes gets squeezed into classical albums.

Maybe Russian pride has something to do with this, but whatever the reason, this recording has every bit as much precision as Slatkin’s and gives Ormandy a run for his money as far as lushness is concerned (James Mallinson’s production is noteworthy not only for very closely replicating the warmth of a vinyl record, but also for capturing the ambience of the concert hall – put your headphones on and you are there). And Matsuev’s interpretation is spot-on, coupling a strong yet fluid legato to the kind of percussive power that you need in order to drive all those ferocious crescendos home, replete with longing, angst and rage and not a hint of the cold, clinical precision that plagued so many Soviet recordings of this material. As far as that’s concerned, there’s plenty of dynamics but there’s nothing particularly subtle in either of these pieces, Rachmaninov veering between his usual white-knuckle intensity and perhaps the sonic equivalent of a too-strong handshake: not for everyone, maybe, but you can’t say it doesn’t grab you. Pianist and orchestra wrest a vivid downward trajectory into the sweepingly beautiful second movement of the concerto from the battlefield that opens it, and interestingly, they accentuate many of the pauses that demarcate the twenty-eight cinematic variations of the Paganini theme. It works both to smooth the transitions between them and maybe even to underscore what Rachmaninov might have had in mind, a series of foreboding miniatures linked with a robust, epically optimistic theme.

March 4, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment