DARK SONORITIES: GERGIEV’S SHOSTAKOVICH

SHOSTAKOVICH: SYMPHONY NO 7 , ‘LENINGRAD’ LSO, Valery Gergiev/Mariinsky MAR 0533 SACD  This is the fourth release in Valery Gergiev’s cycle of the Shostakovich symphonies being recorded for the Mariinsky label. Now, for the first time, he has reached a work that he has already recorded with the same orchestra for Philips back in 2001. The Mariinsky Orchestra was then called the Kirov Orchestra – the alteration to its current name reflecting the changed political climate in the intervening years. The earlier recording used the combined forces of his Russian orchestra and the Rotterdam Philharmonic and exemplified Gergiev’s monumental approach to the ‘Leningrad’ Symphony – with dark sonorities and slow tempi being the order of the day. Astonishingly on this new SACD Gergiev moves even further in the same direction, as a comparison of timings illustrates:
Kirov/Rotterdam PO I 27’32” II 13’05” III 17’58” IV 20’04” Total 78’50”
Mariinsky Orchestra I 28’45” II 15’30” III 19’03” IV 19’03” Total 82’21”
The opening bars of the first movement at first sound slightly underpowered, but as it progresses Gergiev builds up the tension with remarkable assurance and the central climax is almost overwhelming. The sense of tragedy and what Shostakovich describes as “a requiem expressing the people’s sorrow over their dead heroes” is at the forefront of Gergiev’s performance. The second movement is more controversial – performed at a tempo closer to andante than the marked ‘Moderato (poco Allegretto)’. At this tempo the character of the music is altered considerably. It does, however, flow gracefully, imbued with a pastoral calm. – its wistful melody alluringly phrased by the orchestra’s solo oboe and cor anglais . Thanks to Gergiev’s now favoured antiphonal seating of the strings, the left /right interplay of the violins is most marked. The stridently brassy martial central section is excitingly delivered with biting percussion to the fore.
Gergiev launches the slow movement with bitter intensity before the long flute solo brings a sense of sadness and calm to the music. After the frantic excitement of the contrasting middle section he allows the achingly beautiful melody on the violas to flow in a natural and unforced manner. Unfortunately in both of these middle movements it is hard to ignore the alarming level of Gergiev’s mutterings picked up by the microphones.
The finale, that Shostakovich describes as “the victory of light over darkness, wisdom over frenzy, lofty humanism over monstrous tyranny” opens with an atmosphere of expectation and excitement that Gergiev builds on with increasing impetus. The contrast with the conductor’s predominantly bleak view of the preceding movements is marked, and it makes the final heroic proclamation with which the work ends all the more impressive.
The recorded sound is much more vivid than on some of the earlier releases in this cycle. The sound stage is very wide as is the dynamic range, but to achieve maximum sonic impact impact this SACD does need to be played at a high volume setting.
 There is no doubt that Gergiev’s interpretation of this iconic work has deepened considerably since his first recording of it. Though his very measured approach will not suit all listeners, it does leave one with feelings of admiration both for his uncompromising vision of the work and for the dedication from the players of the Mariinsky Orchestra who perform this long and taxing symphony with such commitment and focused intensity.