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Shostakovich, Symphony No.4, Gergiev

available at Amazon
D.Shostakovich, Sy. No. 4,
Valery Gergiev / Kirov Orchestra,
Philips 02894708422

available at Amazon
D.Shostakovich, Sy. No. 4,
Rudolf Barshai / WDR SO

Valery Gergiev continues with his cycle of Shostakovich's "War Symphonies," a concept that he stretches to include Symphonies No. 4 through 9. The idea of a new, even if truncated, DSCH cycle from a Russian conductor and outfit is an exciting one, given the allure that the Mravinsky cycle (Melodiya) still holds and the technical polish that the Kirov has achieved under the often fiery Gergiev. Certainly this—especially if ever completed—would be a rival to the Western Bernhard Haitink traversal and the "East-West hybrid" that is Rudolf Barshai's survey? With four of six planned symphonies under his belt, the verdict is not quite in.

His recording of Symphony No. 7 was widely considered a minor effort, but his recording of Nos. 5 and 9 (an ingenious coupling of DSCH's most accessible and enjoyably wild symphonies) I thought was quite excellent. No. 5 is bombastic, much like André Previn's famous recording (RCA), but sharper and better recorded. It does not have the refinement of Haitink (London) or the clarity of Barshai (in a very different, transparent version on Brilliant) but could well go near the top of anyone's list. No. 9 is even better with Gergiev perfectly capturing the wistful character. The whole symphony becomes a dancing feast of music; not the only way to play this music, but the most fun I've heard so far.

Now Symphony No. 4 is out, and I was initially taken by it. If this most Mahlerian of Shostakovich's symphonies (just listen to the opening of the 2nd movement to hear Mahler with a Russian accent) is not as difficult to grasp as the disjointed structure and independent, parallel elements would suggest, it is because of its wild, riveting, sometimes abrasively glorious assault on our senses.

The momentum Gergiev builds over the course of the third (and last) movement is near irresistible. Alas, it also points to what, under closer examination, becomes one of its flaws: Gergiev is off to an awfully slow start. You have to stick with him for at least the first movement's 25 minutes to know that the ride will be worth the price of admission. Compare to that Barshai's first movement (at 27 minutes a bit slower) and it will only underscore that impression. Barshai (who knew DSCH personally and had worked with him) gets his West German Radio Symphony Orchestra worked up from the start, like a twitching race-horse out of the stalls. Barshai enters into the first movement headlong; Gergiev, cautious.

The playing of the Kirov, meanwhile, is everything we have come to expect of them. Precise, but not entirely at the cost of the Russian sound: that lingering of chaos just beneath the surface of cohesion. The second movement, too, seems dormant, but then, three minutes into the largo of the 3rd movement, the whole work, very broadly, picks up momentum, shifts like a stone giant awoken, and even the lyrical passages cannot thwart the ensuing energy. It's subtle, less forward than the blazing Barshai, fostered by the softer, rounder sound of the Philips recording. (That sound is more of a distraction in the earlier movements where the xylophones, especially, could be a bit more "bony" for a greater, harsh effect. The SACD version of this recording will be forthcoming in early 2005 and should be an improvement on the already commendable sound.)

Imperceptibly, Gergiev builds up this force in the Allegro of the finale and rides it home with great fanfare (literally). While better than many other recordings, I hesitate to make it my top recommendation. But given that Barshai is only available as part of the (admittedly ridiculously cheap and consistently wonderful) complete set on Brilliant, it will be worth to acquire the Hybrid SACD version (for the same price), especially for those with high-end systems.

(Edit: Barshai's Fourth is now available on a single disc -- see above -- whereas the Philips SACD is no longer produced.)

See also: Mariss Jansons's DSCH-4.

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