Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, this concert’s closer, has been for years the subject of swirling controversy over its supposed secret anti-totalitarian subtext. Since the Munich Philharmonic’s music director, Valery Gergiev, is not only Russian but an avowed supporter of Vladimir Putin, this question of how he would approach this piece took on added interest. Would it be the hymn to Soviet life that apparently satisfied Stalin, or a story of clandestine indomitability under repression, or something else entirely?

Valery Gergiev conducts the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra
© Chris Lee

The Munich Philharmonic has a rich, dark sound, due no doubt at least in part to Gergiev’s choice of seating for the strings: cellos face the audience in the center of the orchestra, while the second violins, seated stage left across from the first violins, have their soundboards facing away from the audience. But some of it has to have been cultivated in his tenure with the group; I have rarely heard bassoons so present in an orchestra, for instance, and instruments like trumpet, xylophone and piccolo, which can often dominate when they are present, were integrated into the texture.

This approach did not favor Jörg Widmann’s 2008 concert overture Con brio. It features air sounds and vocal noises along with stabs, crescendos and fanfares; short Beethovenesque figures for the brass appear and disappear. It was an energetic reading of an enjoyable piece. But some of the textures were murky, and the brass figures seemed dull. If it had been a recording, I would have looked to see if the treble control were turned down.

Brahms' Violin Concerto fared better. Leonidas Kavakos exuded an unshowy confidence, making the solo part’s notorious difficulties seem easy rather than overly dramatic. Both he and Gergiev seemed content to let the music speak for itself. The balance between soloist and orchestra was exquisite; while the overall darkness of the ensemble’s sound continued here, it was not muddy, and the brass sound was much more focused. Kavakos’ rendition of the Joachim cadenza was a high point, perfectly shaped around the silences between phrases. The orchestra’s oboe and horn soloists gave individual life to their prominent lines in the second movement. The attacca onset of the third movement seemed to take some of the orchestra off guard; there were minor ensemble problems in the beginning measures. These were soon overtaken by an engaging boisterousness and the first sparkling brilliance of the evening from the orchestra. (Kavakos’ encore, “The Beggar” from Enescu’s Impressions of Childhood, was delightfully quirky.)

And then after intermission came the Shostakovich, which Gergiev conducted from memory. For me, at least, concerns about the symphony’s political subtext were quickly forgotten in favor of delight at the music-making. With the addition of the required woodwinds, brass, and auxiliary instruments, the orchestra’s rich low end was finally matched by equally rich highs. Textures were absolutely clear. So were the music’s structures and moods.

Tempos were brisk throughout, emphasizing a narrative momentum. The accelerando in the first movement culminated in a galvanizing near-hysteria. The Scherzo featured two of my favorite moments of the evening: an entrance for the tuba and trombones that had the punch of an electric bass, and an unusually elongated ritardando before the final phrase. Even the Largo seemed questing, evoking a crucial rainy-day soul-searching rather than a profound contemplation, and moving toward the climactic anguish with a grim inevitability.

The finale is where most of the political freight lands for those wanting to read politics into this symphony. Tentative forays into major keys fade back into minor, before finally ending with a triumphant D major passage, with celebratory winds accompanied by endlessly repeating notes in the strings. Is this a forced celebration? Is it real? Is it earned?

To me, that final passage read not as forced but as deliberate, as a choice being made, and the whole symphony in this performance felt like a personal journey, very much in the mode of Beethoven’s symphonies. Whether that has anything to do with Gergiev’s own interpretation, of course, I have no idea. Therein lies the tragedy and silliness of both Soviet censorship of Shostakovich’s music and the modern debates about its true meaning: each listener makes their own sense of any piece of music. Gergiev and the Munich Philharmonic did a phenomenal job performing this piece in a way that spoke to me.