Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos 2 & 11

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COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
LABELS: Mariinsky
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 2 & 11
PERFORMER: Mariinsky Orchestra & Chorus/ Valery Gergiev
CATALOGUE NO: MAR 0507

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Hearing the Second Symphony alongside the much more familiar 11th highlights more connections between the two symphonies than I would have initially expected. True, Shostakovich’s earlier essay explores a much more radical musical language than the more traditional and tonally orientated later work.

Yet both in their different ways communicate a very graphic experience of political struggle, though the naive optimism of the choral finale to the Second is replaced by a much more ambiguous message in the ominous tolling of the bell during  the concluding  bars of the 11th.

Supported by a vivid SACD recording, Gergiev delivers a compelling account of the Second. His vast experience as an opera conductor pays real dividends in maximising the theatricality of the musical experience, painting the dark chaos of the opening and the surge of anarchic energy in the ensuing 13-part fugue in bold colours and exhorting the full-throated voices of the Mariinsky Theatre Choir to sing the unashamedly propagandist text with conviction and fervour.

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The 11th also receives a gripping performance. Yet although Gergiev keeps things moving in ‘Palace Square’ the music’s icy stillness is never sacrificed. Likewise the funeral tread of ‘In Memoriam’ is purposeful but still deeply affecting. At the opposite end of the dynamic spectrum, Gergiev notches  up the tension to fever pitch in the fugato section of the ‘9th of January’ and in the opening and closing paragraphs of ‘the Tocsin’. For the most part the Mariinsky Orchestra follow his demands to the letter, though in the opening half of the second movement the ensemble is occasionally not quite as pristine as one might have expected. Erik Levi