On a good night, there's nothing quite like them. But make that three good nights and it's hard to contemplate substitutes. Valery Gergiev fielded his own Mariinsky forces for the climax of his Shostakovich cycle at the Barbican and in so doing took the remaining symphonies home.
Or rather, home from home. There is something indelibly personal about hearing these musicians perform this music. The Mariinsky players offer a different perspective, a greater immediacy, a unique ability to cut through the subterfuge and show us more of what Shostakovich was really thinking.
We knew what Gergiev was thinking from the way in which the six symphonies in these final concerts were paired off. The perplexing Symphony No 6, for instance, sat alongside the monumental No 13, both at structural extremes from one another but bonded by their wilful unorthodoxy and sardonic humour. The final movement of No 6 - a mad dash to civil disobedience, despatched by the Mariinsky players with almost reckless virtuosity - seemed to feed into the black, subversive irreverence of Shostakovich's setting of Yevtushenko's eulogy to "Humour" in No 13. The abandon of the strings as Humour danced his way into immortality carried a conviction that no Western players could replicate.
The same was true of Sergey Alexashkin, the soulful bass, and his male voice Mariinsky colleagues. They conveyed the substance of Yevtushenko's brave words with startling informality. And what a great idea on someone's part to surtitle the poems so as to underline precisely where and how the words sat with the music.
It is one of the great ironies of Shostakovich's symphonic canon that his long-awaited Lenin Symphony (No 12, "The Year 1917"), the symphony he always wanted, needed, to write, should have proved such a dud, while the symphony that saw off Stalin (No 10) emerged an undisputed masterpiece.
By performing the two symphonies back-to-back and in reverse order, Gergiev seemed to be reasserting what Shostakovich knew first-hand - that Lenin's idealism had been superseded by a force more menacing than that which he had sought to overthrow.
But not even Gergiev could disguise the fact that bluster is no substitute for belief. He and his players roared through No 12 lest anyone have time to reflect on how thinly its music was spread. The physical excitement was undeniable. They made a decent fist of it. But only so that No 10 could deliver the knock-out punch.
And it did. The symphony seemed to evolve from a deeper place than ever before. The depth and penetration of the string sound seemed fathomless, with every woodwind principal an identifiable figure on the landscape. Their personality and virtuosity - particularly the mordant first bassoon and plangent first oboe - was extraordinary.
But the real clincher for me was how Gergiev chose to conclude his cycle - not with the enigmatic No 15, the final symphony, but with No 11, "The Year 1905", a work that I am more and more convinced is the heart and soul of the cycle. With its thematic fabric of revolutionary songs, it enshrines, symbolises, the spirit - the hopes, the fears and the resilience - of an entire nation with unforgettable directness.
Gergiev's stonking performance seemed more than ever to project its message into the future. When the brutal fusillades of percussion had been silenced and the marches ground to a halt and all that remained was the lone voice of the cor anglais, beaten but unbowed, then you realised what this and all the other symphonies were really about - the quest for human dignity. And even as the mighty alarm bells ring out at the close, there is ambivalence in the tonality. Is it major, is it minor? Should we be hopeful or fearful? For Shostakovich there was always a question mark.Reuse content