LSO/Gergiev, Barbican, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Flashback, then, to Symphony No 1, and that indeterminate opening. Ironically, Shostakovich is already toying with his audience. A carnival atmosphere is established, but nobody's laughing. Perhaps because Gergiev, with hindsight, is all too aware of the cynicism taking root in the piece. An overbearing rawness from his London Symphony brass seemed hell-bent on underlining the militaristic overtones. But this isn't one of Shostakovich's war symphonies. The slow movement offers breadth and depth of feeling, but it's still a young man's fancy.

So, plenty of edge and attitude, but with the prankster and romantic too little in evidence. Perhaps it was the angry young man that Gergiev sought to characterise. At any rate, I think he over-egged the "seriousness" of the theatrics.

No danger of that in the 14th Symphony. The poetry of death elicited a symphony of sorrowful songs as furious and compassionate as any of his works. The angry young man has become an angry older man. The chronicle of deathly grimaces is meant to shock - and does. Poems by Lorca, Apollinaire, Küchelbecker and Rilke come off the page with a frightening immediacy that belies the modest strings and percussion. You can't quite believe your ears.

Gergiev brought two excellent soloists from the Kirov Opera - Olga Sergeeva and Sergey Alexashkin - and, harnessed to the hair-raisingly intense LSO strings, they stripped bare the carcass of this extraordinary work. Sergeeva's imperious vocal and physical presence stalked the tavern of Lorca's "Malagueña", and then haunted us like the ghost of a latterday Ophelia in Apollinaire's "The Suicide". Alexashkin's deceptively untheatrical presence made the poetry of compassion in Küchelbecker's "O Delvig, Delvig!" the more potent.And then the "Conclusion": "Death is all-powerful", they sing in unison, before a shudder from the strings. Gripping stuff.