Gergiev and the Kirov
by James Leonard
Having heard Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra play the First, Second, Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth Symphonies of Dmitry Shostakovich last season and lived to tell the tale, the only question I have left is this: How many more will it take to finish me off? Like the rest of Ann Arbor, I'll get the chance to find out when the University Musical Society brings Gergiev and the Kirov back to Hill Auditorium Friday through Sunday, October 20-22, for three more concerts dedicated to the profoundly pessimistic symphonies of the great Soviet composer.
Who knows, it could well be fatal. Last season, Gergiev led the works as if he'd known and loved them all his life - which he very well may have. He grasped their furious heights and their fuliginous depths, understood their fervent lyricism and their ironic heroism, comprehended their aesthetic sublimity and their banal vulgarity, and was able to join these disparate qualities in unified interpretations of consummate artistry and deepest humanity. Best of all, Gergiev was able to elicit superbly polished and supremely passionate performances from what is, after all, the pit orchestra of St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater. With a tone like dark wood, a color like bright fire, and an attack like a sharp ax, the Kirov is an almost elemental force that Gergiev wields with the grace of an aesthetic warrior.
But for those who don't want to play Beat the Reaper, the question is: How many more Shostakovich symphony concerts can you take? Can you take only the first concert, the concert with the monumental Eleventh treating the martyrs of the 1905 Russian Revolution as if they were victims of any totalitarian regime, coupled with the cyclopedian Sixth, with its opening Largo like a dead and burned-out planet? Can you also take the second concert, with the unrelenting Twelfth treating the biography of Lenin as if it were a social realist action movie, coupled with the inexorable Fourteenth, with
its sequence of songs for soprano and bass dedicated to the overwhelming power and awful ubiquity of death? Can you even take the third concert, with the massive Eighth treating the twenty million dead of the Great Patriotic War with the horror, pity, and honor they deserve, coupled with the excruciating Thirteenth, called Babi Yar after Yevtushenko's poem, with its bass soloist and men's chorus condemning the venal and mortal sins of the Soviet state?
The only way to know is to go. Think of it as a musical game of Russian roulette - with six of the chambers loaded.
[Review published October 2006]