LSO/Gergiev, Barbican Hall, London
Sunday 23 October 2005
Shostakovich undoubtedly wrote some great music. Much of it, however, has acquired an aura of greatness that relates more to the circumstances surrounding its creation than it does to the music itself. The Leningrad Symphony - written during the siege of 1941-3 and completed before the victory depicted in its last movement - is one such work.
The appeal of the first movement is visceral: a primitive thrill not dissimilar to that experienced while watching a horror movie. (The third, by contrast, mixes Mussorgsky's musky melancholy with Stravinsky's prismatic chording.) Whether the menace of the snare drum ostinato personifies Hitler or Stalin, as Shostakovich later claimed, is neither here nor there. Like wolves howling at the moon, we are programmed to respond to repeated rhythmic patterns; hence the enduring popularity of Holst's "Mars" and Orff's O Fortuna.
But where Holst implicitly condemns violence, Shostakovich seems as star-struck by the spectacle as Orff; intoxicated by the stamp of the jackboot and the roll of the tank, and content to record their progress without comment.
Off form, Gergiev is a chaotic conductor. On form, as he was in this performance, his rhythmic and dynamic control is astonishing. For all the grit of its subject, the Leningrad Symphony is a glossy work. Here it was given a glossy performance, with terrific work from the xylophone and snare, ravishing colours from clarinet, oboe and cor anglais, bright brass, and, as ever, the most polished string playing you will hear in this country. Shock and awe indeed.
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