Shostakovich: The Nose; Symphonies 1 and 15

Soloists, Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev (Mariinsky Label MAR0501 & MAR0502)

3 July 2009 4 stars4.5 stars

Mariinsky Label

These two new releases represent the birth of what could be the most exciting new record label since the inception of LSO Live – and it's perhaps no surprise that the LSO team is behind it.

Mariinsky, as the new label is simply called, is the latest project of Valery Gergiev, who is the link between the LSO (of which he is Principal Conductor) and the Mariinsky Theatre (of which he is General and Artistic Director). The demise of Philips meant that Gergiev no longer had the kind of artistic freedom he likes when it came to making recordings, which has benefited everyone all the way round in the end: he now records for LSO Live, whereas it had been announced that he would not do so when he took over at the LSO; and the inauguration of the Mariinsky label means that he can put an enormous range of stage and symphonic works down on record in his home theatre, with an emphasis on the native Russian repertoire.

The first two releases bring us Shostkovich's still-provocative opera The Nose with his first and last symphonies. Later in the year, Gergiev will release a disc of Tchaikovsky overtures, with the first recording of Rodion Shchedrin's opera The Enchanted Wanderer and other rarities to come further in the future. Though both labels are run by the same dream team of Grammy Award-winning producer James Mallinson and sound engineer John Newton, the Mariinsky Label remains distinct from the LSO Live one in that all its product is recorded in the studio, with the attendant immaculate sound conditions. Packaging and distribution is pretty much the same, though, even if the Mariinsky product is slightly more expensive.

The complete recording of The Nose is a special achievement: it takes a strong ensemble with lots of good individual voices and actors to really make the piece work – a cast of 78 is needed – and here Gergiev has them in spades. In spite of it being a studio recording, the conductor achieves such vibrancy, detail and spontaneity that the opera sounds like the product of a mature composer who had worked for many years on the piece – whereas Shostakovich was a mere twenty-two years old when he composed the work, and the second act took only a fortnight to complete.

It's alarming how much sophistication is brought forth in the score, mixing folk melodies with harmonic extremity, and the avant-garde nature of the score and libretto comes through absolutely in Gergiev's wonderful reading. To be perfectly honest, it seems invidious to pick out individuals in such an even performance, but Vladislav Sulimsky's Kovalev, Sergei Semishkur's Nose and Gennady Bezzubenkov's double stint as the Doctor and Coachman seem to demand attention. With a complete, clear libretto, informative essay by Leonid Gakkel and excellent playing from the Mariinsky orchestra, there's much to enjoy here.

However, I confess there's something especially riveting about the symphonic disc, pairing Symphonies Nos. 1 and 15. Gergiev had embarked on a Shostakovich cycle on Philips but didn't get further than Symphonies 4-9; he will now record them all from scratch with the Mariinsky Orchestra, starting with the ones that he didn't do before.

To hear Shostakovich's first and final thoughts in the symphonic genre so closely juxtaposed is fascinating, not least because he had so fine a grasp on what he was doing even at the beginning of his career. Gergiev leads a passionate account of the First Symphony, all violins soaring and brass blazing, and totally persuades the listener of Shostakovich's contrasting subtlety in the slower moments. The conductor seems to understand instinctively where Shostakovich is looking knowingly to the past and when he's breaking out in a new direction, and the insight brought to the score is inspiring.

Nevertheless, it's the final symphony that stands out. This is, of course, a slightly mad-sounding piece, with its evocation of Rossini's William Tell Overture during the first movement and spookily quiet, minimalist final movement (this time referring to the 'Fate' motive from Wagner's Ring); added to that is a dodecaphonic second movement and a brief, troubled yet classical Scherzo. Gergiev is magnificent at interpreting the irony, the underlying sorrow, the compositional daring and the beauty of this music, and for my money this is the most winning performance out of the three works on offer here.

The future titles in the series are well worth looking forward to – and before that, we have Gergiev's account of Bluebeard's Castle on LSO Live.

By Dominic McHugh

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