Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra presented last Sunday the fifth concert of their “Shostakovich Project” at the Salle Pleyel. From January 2013 to February 2014, they have been bringing all the composer’s symphonies and some of his concertos in Paris. The first concerts have already been acclaimed by the Parisian audience and by the international critics – I remember a breathtaking “Babi Yar” (Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony, with bass Mikhail Petrenko). Sunday’s concert, featuring the great, 100-musician Fourth Symphony and the young prodigy Daniil Trifonov, was a big venue for the Parisian stage.

Daniil Trifonov with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra in 2011 © Valentin Baranovsky
Daniil Trifonov with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra in 2011
© Valentin Baranovsky

For this occasion, the Salle Pleyel had edited a beautiful booklet containing Shostakovich’s biography, a timeline, and texts about each piece. The program said that this concert was to feature first the Symphony no. 4, then, after the interval, the Concerto for piano, trumpet and strings and the Symphony no. 9 – unusually, beginning with the longest piece. So as we entered the hall, we were expecting an enormous orchestra and symphonic grandiloquence. What we got, however, was a classical formation, and light, satirical melodies: the concert in fact began with the Ninth!

A funny coincidence: we therefore had the same impression as Stalin and the audience had at the Ninth’s première in 1945, expecting a large musical celebration of the victory and a real glorification of the Father of Nations, with choirs, a gigantic orchestra and epic music. Instead of this Ninth – an “Ode to Stalin” aspiring to be a communist version of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” – they got an odd, noisy joke, disconcerting in its form as well as in its orchestration. Beyond their different moods, the four movements contain complex instrumentation, which makes each timbre sound unique, and showcases each desk in the orchestra. The excellent solo bassoon, horn and clarinet took on this opportunity several times. The four movements depicted different atmospheres – after the ironic Allegro, a meditative Moderato with the woodwinds, a joyful Presto contrasting with a dramatic Largo where the bassoon solo is cut short by solemn brass, and a swirling, burlesque Finale. Shostakovich’s Ninth is a pretty enigmatic one, in which the Mariinsky musicians had no difficulties in showing their talents.

For the Concerto for piano, trumpet and string orchestra, Gergiev appealed to the current wonder-boy of the piano, Daniil Trifonov, who won the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2011 and is still only 22 – the young man is a revelation in the piano world. Sometimes magically lithe, sometimes extremely percussive, Trifonov handled the technical difficulties nimbly. Far from being overstated, his interpretation emphasized the concerto’s poetry with an impetuous but refined touch and well-balanced virtuosity. Beautifully supported by Timur Martynov’s sensitive, nippy trumpet throughout the piece, he showed his fascinating technique and his musical inventiveness in the mischievous first, third and fourth movements, where military marches, musical jokes and vertiginous tricks follow each other haphazardly. Russian melancholy made an appearance in the contemplative second movement, where both soloists and strings sung their own parts in an emotional dialogue.

All through the piece, Gergiev, Trifonov and Martynov seemed to be constructing their own interpretation as they were playing, living a unique musical experience. When they reprised the fourth movement as an encore, we heard a clearly different interpretation, with different qualities and different colours.

Composed in 1935–36, the three-movement Fourth Symphony suffered from censorship and was only premièred in 1961. Strong dissonances, dramatic themes and mysterious contrasts form a monumental symphony. Gergiev seemed to live it, transcending the score with his orchestra, deciphering the composer’s mind. The complex Finale epitomizes the whole symphony with its richly contrasted atmospheres: a funeral march, a scherzo and a polka among others. The orchestra stood in a full symbiosis with its conductor, moving from Russian heroism to Mahlerian despair, from enigmatic solos to striking tutti, from the official Soviet composer to the oppressed Russian one. Actually, Mahler is there in the whole piece: the double basses’ ostinato before the last coda, the Ländler-like second movement, the funeral march opening the Finale, the descending fourths in the flutes and trumpets... and the brilliant use of the brass desk, featuring among others the wonderful first trumpet, who reigned over the Finale, and the talented first horn, who made a success of his demanding second-movement solo.

The vivid coda kept the audience on their toes. The seventeen wonderful Mariinsky brass players, and indeed the whole 100-musician orchestra, blared out some giant C major chords with staggering dissonances, before vanishing and making way for a tight, critical pianissimo among the horn, the flute and the celesta. Dying away, the sound was kept by Gergiev’s hand at a stunning silence for almost a whole minute. After this thrilling moment, there was great applause, and many people fled the hall. There had been endless complaints about the concert beginning 20 minutes late, and people were obviously fed up with this 150-minute-long concert. But despite many audience members leaving in haste, the Mariinsky Orchestra and its musical director took a bow under unbridled hurrahs.