Philharmonia / Valery Gergiev Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
'The main attention of the Soviet composer must be directed towards the victorious principles of reality..." Strong words from the 1930s Soviet top brass and good reason for Dimitri Shostakovich to withdraw his uncompromisingly dissonant Fourth Symphony, even before its aborted 1936 premiere. Tuesday's RFH Shostakovich Four from the Philharmonia under Kirov maestro Valery Gergiev was big on decibels, but weak on subtlety. Prior to the performance, a voice boomed over the speakers apologising for a metrical thud that had all but ruined the Tchaikovsky Serenade that opened the concert. "Work in progress on the Jubilee Line across the river..." we were told, though Shostakovich's deafening climaxes might have prompted a retaliatory "Look who's complaining"! Gergiev rushed at the opening clarion calls with some impatience, while the Mahlerian wind and brass solos that follow - masses of them, from cuckoos and cows to carping critics fresh out of Strauss's Ein Heldenleben - sounded more insistent than ironic.

There was no twinkle in the eye, no incisive pointing or metaphorical baring of teeth (memories of Rattle and Rozhdestvensky helped focus critical perspectives). Furthermore, although the furious contrapuntal tidal-wave that sweeps towards the first movement's home straight was viscerally exciting, excessive speeding made for some vague articulation and a corresponding loss of impact.

The Scherzo was better, especially the closing page or so, with its eerily shuffling percussion - and when the funeral-march-cum-finale set out towards its deafening peroration you began to realise why Shostakovich was probably wise to keep his wildest child "off the streets". Granted, there are some keen premonitions of the Fifth Symphony, but in most respects the Fourth represents a lonely blind alley that could only lead to chaos and violence. Or at least that's how Gergiev's bullish performance made it sound. Still, there was fine orchestral playing on show, not least from guest leader Stephanie Gonley, whose solo work near the close of the first movement was especially rich in feeling.

The Serenade for Strings grew fat on a big-toned, unashamedly romantic performance. Gergiev gestured wildly over the opening Andante non troppo, his arms widely outstretched, his quivering fingers splayed like talons. Following his beat must have been fairly difficult, but once into its stride, the first movement weighed in with great gusto and some warming string sonorities.

The waltz edged in on a hint of rubato, the "Elegia" had plenty of feeling but lacked phrasal flexibility, and the very Russian finale even managed to upstage those pile-driving contractors from across the river. Robert Cowan