Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra bring a zest for life to Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony. The unusual symphonic form, in five short movements (Allegro, Moderato, Presto, Largo, Allegretto-Allegro), sees the great Russian composer change tack frequently, jumping between styles, but to my ear Gergiev holds the Mariinsky Orchestra well in control and builds a cohesive sound for the symphony. This is the latest part of their Shostakovich cycle released on the Mariinsky Label and here it is coupled with the compelling Violin Concerto No 1 performed by the exceptional Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos. Both works stem from within a few years of each other (symphony 1945 and concerto 1947-8) and are well balanced partners on this recording. Where the Ninth Symphony seems playful (although the superficial quality of this cheeriness is easily argued) the Violin Concerto No 1 from its opening is dark and full of tone. Its initial melancholic passage led by Kavakos’ beautifully resonant playing doesn’t even hint at the fireworks yet to be offered though.
It is easy to hear how Kavakos won the award Gramophone Artist of the Year in 2014. His playing is sparkling and yet full of drive and engagement. Moving on from its dark opening, the concerto’s second movement is a chirpy Scherzo, which echoes Shostakovich’s style from the Ninth Symphony well, with the woodwind plunging up and down in scale passages. Before long the stage is fully taken by the violin and the explosions of sound from Kavakos are truly exciting and vigorous. It’s a movement of continuous passage work for the violin, but we never feel Kavakos flagging, in contrast it pushes forward constantly under Gergiev’s highly experienced baton. You can feel the orchestra’s enjoyment and it’s infectious.
After this burst of enthusiasm, Shostakovich returns to move pensive territory with the third movement, which starts as a stately Passacaglia in the brass and lower strings. Once again the violin takes prominence after this extended orchestral tutti, but there follows a moving duet between the impassioned violin and the cor anglais which is then taken over by the French horns before being passed to the whole orchestra. This builds to a climax around 4:30 and then the violin moves into triple time as the Passacaglia form reasserts itself. This is really an overwhelming performance by Kavakos and no less by the Mariinsky – I keep finding myself breathing along in time as the entire orchestra must have been doing. The cadenza falls in this movement and to start it is a welcome relief after the intensity of the previous passage. A long cadenza, it builds up in pace and finally segues into the “Burlesque – Allegro con brio – Presto” of the last movement. Another chance to hear the violin explode, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Shostakovich’s piano concertos. Kavakos’ sound is exceptionally clear and well-articulated whilst also bringing the right amount of character to the burlesque themes, which sit so nicely on the violin.
A gem of a recording with a world-class orchestra. This CD has understandably received excellent reviews all round and these are fully deserved. I only wish I could see them play it live!
Reviewer: Katie Lodge