Valery Gergiev returned to Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center this week, to resume the complete Shostakovich symphony cycle he launched here last spring with the Kirov Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre and the Rotterdam Philharmonic. (Reviews of the earlier concerts are here, here, here and here.) Gergiev is finishing the cycle in three concerts with his Kirov ensemble; the first two took place on Monday and Tuesday nights, and the third, potentially the high point of the entire cycle, is coming up on Sunday afternoon.
Interestingly enough, at both of the concerts held so far this week, the initially stated program order was reversed. Monday night's program opened with the Symphony No. 6 and closed with the Symphony No. 11, "The Year 1905." This was logical from a marketing perspective: Start with the unfamiliar work and end with a relatively popular one, and you'll lose fewer audience members at the break.
But it also made sense with respect to the works themselves. In the wake of massive international success for the Symphony No. 5, Shostakovich promised a patriotic blockbuster, a choral celebration of Lenin. What he delivered in his Sixth was a quizzical work that opens with an oversize slow movement, followed by two brief fast ones. Gergiev provided an efficient reading, one in which his orchestra performed with nearly all the brilliance of the memorable spring concerts. The tawny strings, characterful winds, burnished brass and brilliant percussion were just as I remembered them.
The Eleventh was slightly less secure, technically speaking, with a few notable fluffs in the trumpet section. Still, Gergiev dug deep, and brought out the genuine pathos latent in this programmatic work. The four movements were elided more closely than I'd ever noticed before, to the extent that the entire work came off as one extended, Straussian conception. At climaxes, the orchestra roared magnificently; wind soloists were consistently excellent, and I was continually reminded of how impressed I'd been with the Kirov Orchestra's young batterie, the flamboyant timpanist and clockwork-precise snare drummer in particular.
Each of the two works on Tuesday night was given a similarly compressed treatment, although there's no way you could call Gergiev's conception of the bleak Symphony No. 14 "Straussian." Originally scheduled for the second half of the concert, this, too, was moved to the first. A group of 11 songs orchestrated for strings and percussion, and meaningfully dedicated to Benjamin Britten, the Fourteenth is about as much a "symphony" as Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, a common reference point. But Shostakovich's idiom is astringent rather than refulgent, his texts drawn from poems by Garcia Lorca, Apollinaire, Rilke and Kuechelbecker.
When he wrote the piece in 1969, Shostakovich was facing his own mortality, having suffered a massive heart attack three years prior. Ill health plagued him for the rest of his days, and the pall of death hangs about these verses and their settings. Even the sole allusion to eroticism in this work is heartbreaking.
Apart from some sketchy string intonation at the very beginning, the Kirov players were solidly on form in this chilly, skeletal work. The greatest attraction was in Gergiev's two vocal soloists, soprano Olga Sergeyeva and bass Gennady Bezzubenkov. The former, who appeared in a flaming red gown and an enormous blond mane, won my heart as a bouncy, athletic Brünnhilde in a Gergiev-led Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera; the latter lent sepulchral vocals to a memorable recording of Sofia Gubaidulina's St. John Passion on the Hänssler label, and also made an impression when Gergiev led his Kirov Opera forces in Rimsky-Korsakov's The Invisible City of Kitezh at the Met a few summers back. The overall pacing wasn't ideally taut, but both vocal soloists provided deeply conceived characterizations and richly voiced performances.
After the break came Shostakovich's Symphony No. 12, "The Year 1917." This piece, composed in 1961, was ostensibly the composer's long-promised tribute to Lenin, although various of the composer's contemporaries differ as to whether that was actually the case. The symphony begins seemingly mid-stream with a portentous statement from the cellos and basses that rises through the ensemble, like a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster opening with a chase scene in which the principals are as yet unknown. (In the right hands, this can work.) A handful of stark mottos and folkish themes resurface throughout this non-stop expanse, less developed than simply recurring in slightly altered guise. Given its prominent solo parts for bassoon and trombone, as well as its involved percussion workouts, the symphony practically doubles as a concerto for orchestra.
In all honesty, the Symphony No. 12 is probably Shostakovich's least substantial work in the genre, to my ears anyway. It comes off less as a piece of sustained invention, and more a string of "contractual obligation" gestures. Still, once again Gergiev managed to conjure electricity; as a show of pure orchestral brilliance, it was pretty convincing. And that's certainly the way the audience saw it.
Alexander Kipnis - Lebendige Vergangenheit (Preiser)
Contriva - Separate Chambers (Morr Music)
Phish - Colorado '88 (JEMP/Rhino)
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach - Symphonies Nos. 1-4, Cello Concerto in A* - Alison McGillivray*, The English Concert/Andrew Manze (Harmonia Mundi)
King Crimson - The Noise: Live at Frejus (DGM; from the DVD Neal and Jack and Me)
Bobby Bare Jr. - The Longest Meow (Bloodshot)
Can - Monster Movie (Spoon)
Art Ensemble of Chicago - Live in Paris (BYG/Charly)