This disc is one of the first two releases on the new MariInski label, and it is cause for celebration among fans of the composer -- or, indeed, of 20th-century symphonic music. A word about the ensemble: the Mariinsky theater, built in 1860, is one of the world's cultural treasures, home to Russia's greatest opera and ballet companies, and this orchestra, which has long been acclaimed not only for supporting the opera and ballet, but also as a magnificent concert ensemble. Throughout most of the 20th century, all of these institutions carried the Kirov name. Now, it appears, the Mariinsky name has been reinstated.
What a treat it must be to be a music lover in St. Petersburg. I would say that the city boasts the two greatest ensembles for playing Russian music -- and, arguably, all symphonic literature -- in the world today. And Valery Gergiev has established himself as today's preeminent interpreter of this repertoire.
Shostakovich's First Symphony won worldwide respect soon after its completion in 1925, and has remained popular ever since. It's easy to see why. It's an exuberant work, filled with good tunes and high energy, and on the whole it has received many fine performances, most of them emphasizing energy and propulsiveness. A quick check of my shelves turned up a fine RCA LP with Martinon/LSO, Bernstein/NYP, Bernstein/CSO and Sanderling/Berlin. All are excellent, with Bernstein's Chicago CD, coupled with the composer's "Leningrad" Symphony No. 7, in first place. Until now.
Gergiev simply finds more light and shade in this music than any of the excellent interpretations listed above. With the marvelously expressive instrument that is the Mariinsky Orchestra, his subtlety of phrasing suggests complexities in this music that had not previously occurred to me. The orchestra's extraordinary instrumental color in quiet passages, and its whiplash attack,brilliantly illuminate the conductor's insights.
But it is this performance of the 15th Symphony that has had me returning to this disc again and again. I've always found the 15th intriguing but elusive, difficult to get a grip on. The two recorded performances I have some familiarity with -- a respectable version by NeemeJarvi, and a more penetrating interpretation from Mstislav Rostropovich -- never quite motivated me to love this remarkable, enigmatic masterpiece as I now do. Rostropovich understands the piece quite well, but he does not have the advantage of the Mariinsky Orchestra.
When the symphony was published in the early 1970s, I recall much commentary about the quotations from Rossini's William Tell Overture, mostly along the lines of the composer's penchant for playfulness, and suggestions that he was going back to music he loved as a youth. There is something to that, I think, but those notions fall far short of truly understanding the composer's intent. In his fascinating booklet essay, Leonid Gakkel suggests that the multiple Tell quotations, interspersed through a very quiet, sober exposition, symbolize the reversion to popular banality that Shostakovich struggled against throughout his career, as the Soviet bureaucracy routinely criticized or even rejected his most original ideas, demanding uplifting, utopian socialist music. That interpretation is new to me, but it makes a lot of sense, especially given the decidedly uncelebratory irony of the symphony as a whole. And, of course, the 15th contains many references to earlier music: Wagner's Ring cycle and Tristan und Isolde, Gustav Mahler, Stravinsky, Glinka, and some of the composer's earlier works.
Following that eerily disjointed first movement, the slow movement brings more puzzles. Opening with a mournful brass chorale, it moves to a quiet cello solo that incorporates elements of 12-tone compositional techniques, though no Schoenbergian tone rows are in evidence. Throughout the 14 minutes of this movement, there are perhaps only three or four minutes in which the orchestra plays in tutti. The effect is haunting. The second movement flows without pause into the third, a four-minute scherzo that is closer to a typical Shostakovich ironic burlesque than any other part of the symphony. But even here the usual rhetorical gestures are somehow off-center, and especially sardonic.
Shostakovich begins the finale by quoting the "fate" motif from Die Walkure, which recurs farther into the movement. Throughout, the composer avoids any of the bombast and heroic rhetoric so characteristic of, especially, symphonies 7-12. The 15th is scored for a conventional mid-19th-century ensemble, with no vocalists, choruses or augmented instruments. It is the quietest of all Shostakovich symphonies, and the finale is the quietest part of this work. The one climactic moment, coming about two-thirds in, is itself quite restrained. Most of the exposition in this movement comes from small combinations of strings, winds and light percussion. At the close, the music simply fades into blackness, as if Shostakovich were lightly blowing out the candle -- which, emotionally, I believe he was. The more I listen to this movement, the more I am reminded of the Chamber Symphony, an arrangement for string ensemble of the composer's Eighth String Quartet. The resignation and withdrawal I hear here also remind me of Mahler, especially the “Die Abschied” finale of Das Lied von der Erde and the closing Adagio of the Ninth Symphony -- although their sound worlds are quite different from that of the 15th.
It was brilliant programming to pair the first and last efforts by Russia's greatest symphonist. This disc is essential, I should think, to any fan of the composer or the genre. The recorded sound is sensational. I have always liked the sound of recordings from the Mariinsky Theater, which exhibit both warm resonance and extraordinary instrumental detail. One month after choosing our 2009 Blue Note Awards, I'm pretty sure I've already discovered my first selection for the 2010 awards.