Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra: Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 4, 5 & 6
Three of Shostakovich's symphonies sound as scary as they probably did during their premiere, thanks to a unique orchestra and a unique conductor.
First off, I'd like to commend whoever is in charge artwork that adorns the covers all the Valery Gergiev/Mariinsky Orchestra Shostakovich symphony releases. The album in question is the fourth in the series, spreading the fourth, fifth and sixth symphonies onto two discs. I don't even know why the cover art rings so perfectly, it just does. So just on a visual alone, I find the album to be pretty special. But I realize I'm not here to discuss visuals.
The Mariinsky Orchestra is an organization that has taken the bull by the horns, business-wise. They have their own label, their own concert hall, and are deathly serious about preserving some of our last century's greatest musical works. Even the liner notes go the extra mile. There are two in-depth essays inside, one detailing the symphonies themselves and the other a biography of the composer printed in four languages! It appears that the ensemble can trace their origins back to a arts and culture splurge set in motion by Catherine the Great back in 1783. The organization got to play host to many famous premieres, including The Nutcracker. Their reputation was one of a cutting edge collective. And though Shostakovich symphonies might not be considered cutting edge in 2014, they are no less potent. Under Russian conductor Valery Gergiev's direction, these three symphonies shine with the aura of a bold highlighter and help to keep alive the notion that organized music is capable of marvelous things. With a good pair of earbuds, anybody can tune into the rapturous music that slyly set a new standard for what symphonies could do.
And lucky for the listener, Dmitri Shostokovich became a bit eccentric when composing symphonies. His fourth symphony was completed right around the time the composer was entering his thirties. The Soviet Union was a frightening place in the mid- to late '30s and Shostakovich himself was a mild pariah in the eyes of Stalin's regime. He stuck to his guns and completed the symphony, even if it sounds like his senses were on pins and needles while working on it. By many standards this is a long symphony, and the fact that the composer is able to sustain such intense feelings of suspense for approximately an hour is a display of power. Right from the first movement (this symphony only has three movements), you get the feeling that you have wandered into something that you weren't supposed to witness. The opening notes of the upper register hang in flight while the rest of the orchestra swoops down for the kill, only to be rudely halted by percussion. A light trot picks up here, but the harmony therein tells us that something is terribly wrong.
Shostakovich's fifth behaves in a similar manner. The sweeping figure from the start is a warning (fans of the Britpop band the Smiths will recognize this opening figure since Morrissey sampled it for "The Teachers Are Afraid of the Pupils" -- because when you're Morrissey, you can do things like that). As the first movement pushes forward amid quiet tension, you find yourself in a minefield. Explosions are going off left and right. Once in a while the opening figure will reappear, reminding you that you were fairly warned of the dangers ahead. Both the fifth and sixth symphonies are on the second disc. They are comparably shorter than the fourth, but they are no less chilling. The sixth one's first movement really screws with your expectations with all of the pianissimo dynamics and unresolving harmony. The composer saves the heavy artillery for the "Allegro" and "Presto" movements where his use of unease is matched by his use of stealth.
After spending so much time listening to Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 4, 5 & 6, I'm still in awe of the Mariinsky Orchestra's knack to not only perform this music immaculately but also get out of its way and let the human conditions shine forth. We cannot allow ourselves to take recordings like this for granted. If we do, we are doomed to forget the gift of luster bestowed upon us by men like Dmitri Shostakovich and the gift of spit and polish by men like Valery Gergiev. The Mariinsky Orchestra know where they stand. They've known for 231 years.