Shostakovich: The Nose
St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre launches its own label with this beautifully packaged, lavishly illustrated recording of its current production of Shostakovich’s The Nose.
At last, here is a worthy rival to Rozhdestvensky’s superbly pungent version with the singers and orchestra of the Moscow Chamber Theatre, recorded a year before the composer’s death (currently it’s on Melodiya coupled with the torso of the other Gogol-Shostakovich opera, The Gamblers).
Rozhdestvensky’s performance may occasionally bring more gleeful vigour, but Gergiev finds more variety in this most brilliantly anarchic of all Shostakovich’s works. He wrings superb playing from his band, bringing real panache to the rapid alternations of contrast and grotesquerie and to the brilliantly inventive interludes. Virtually every orchestra member is a soloist at some time in this work and they all relish their pungent vignettes.
The sheer anarchic daring and certainty of Shostakovich’s score – he was only 22 when he finished it – holds us in thrall with its impudent mixture of styles including folksong, popular ballads, jazz and a polyphonic atonality as dissonant as that of his highly ‘modernist’ Second Symphony.
Gogol’s farcical fable of officialdom has the government official Kovalyev waking up to discover his barber has inadvertently cut off his nose while shaving, and while he tries to get it back and reattach it, the nose starts to pursue a career of its own at a higher civil service rank. Vladislav Sulimsky as Kovalev is powerfully charismatic, on a par with Eduard Akimov in Rozhdestvensky’s recording for characterisation and outdoing him in vocal beauty; he really holds the production together.
In the multitude of minor roles, Sergei Skorokhodov as the valet Ivan and Elena Vitman as the widow Pudtochina deserve special mention, but all the vocal principals communicate utter insane conviction in the surreal, even Kafkaesque, world of Gogol’s story. As in the Rozhdestvensky, singers and orchestra negotiate the most complex ensembles in brilliantly idiomatic and conversational style, confirming the young Shostakovich’s genius for the stage.
Above all, the recorded sound is absolutely superb in its crystal clarity and depth, even managing a vast cavernous sense of ambience in the Cathedral Scene, while the percussion-only interlude has never sounded so effective. Though Rozhdestvensky’s account sounds well despite its age, it simply can’t compete in the super-hi-fi stakes.
Melodiya also fails to provide a libretto, whereas this new Mariinsky set includes the full Russian-English text. The ultimate winner in this excellent release, however, is Shostakovich. Now we can clearly see that he was never so obviously the youthful genius as in this continually brilliant operatic jape with subtly horrific undertones. Calum MacDonald