Shostakovich began writing his Symphony no. 4 in C minor in 1935 when Russia was gripped by Stalin’s purges. The composer was already in deep trouble for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, so the director of Leningrad Philharmonic, Igor Renzin advised the composer to withdraw the work which remained unperformed until its eventual première in Moscow in 1961. In 1962, Edinburgh Festival Director Lord Harewood, determined that art should burst through the Iron Curtain, invited Shostakovich to attend, programming several of his works. The composer arrived with a retinue of minders, hearing Rostropovich play his Cello Sonata and attending the first performance of the Fourth Symphony outside Russia right here in the Usher Hall. If only walls could talk.

Valery Gergiev with the Mariinsky Orchestra and the RSNO © Beth Chalmers
Valery Gergiev with the Mariinsky Orchestra and the RSNO
© Beth Chalmers

Apparently, Valery Gergiev jumped at the idea of having a joint concert with the Mariinsky and RSNO players, each orchestra to play a single work, then combining forces side by side to tackle Shostakovich’s massive symphony. Prokofiev’s short and sweet “Classical” Symphony no. 1 in D major was the Mariinsky's opener, Gergiev’s interpretation full of sparkle and bounce, the cellos and violas a veritable powerhouse in the opening Allegro.  Prokofiev’s homage to Haydn was apparent in the quieter viola moments in the Larghetto and in the stately Gavotte, the woodwind superbly bright. The finale went at a tremendous lick, like watching a whirlwind blowing across the orchestra, Gergiev took time to allow solos though, winding up the momentum to a gallop to the end.

Benjamin Britten was also present at that 1962 Edinburgh Festival, so his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge was an apt choice for the RSNO strings to tackle. Written in eleven short movements, each a tribute to a character of Britten’s teacher and mentor, Gergiev coaxed some warm rich playing from violas, cellos and basses peppered with fierce pizzicatos as the string quartet played Bridge’s melancholy theme. It is a piece of many contrasts from the urgent scurrying march, vigorously strummed cellos and violas in the Aria Italiana, energetic unison with spiky downbows with a violin solo in the Bourrée classique, a dreamy Funeral March and finally the Fugue and Finale in 11 parts, taken a little too fast, but racing along, all strings a-chatter. 

The main event was the Shostakovich though, with over 100 players on the platform, nine double basses, nine horns, two tubas and an expanded woodwind section. It is extraordinary how Gergiev directs his players conducting economically with a pencil baton and fluttering his fingers, but the result was a searing performance of Shostakovich’s deeply personal and angry work. The music is a contrasting and uncompromising mixture of the loud and percussion-filled, like the strident menace of the roof-lifting march that starts the piece, and the lyrical, delicate passages with lots of solo work. Gergiev caught the balance of moods perfectly, the overwhelming feeling reflecting the bleak circumstances in Russia at the time of composition. The industrial-strength sound and discipline of the players impressed, but the heart of this performance was the series of superb solos from right across the orchestra, the bassoonist stealing the limelight. It is a complicated, restless and disturbed work, the climaxes self-destructive, yet there are moments like the piccolos dancing with the bass clarinet, the menace of soft muted trumpets, the plaintive cor anglais and the harps with celeste which give vivid colour. Towards the end, both sets of timpani set up a thunderous urgent mechanical rhythm, joined by a frantic orchestra, the bass drum sounding like cannon shot, but the last notes are ethereal and quiet, the great angry work disappearing into eerie silence, Gergiev with his arms aloft maintaining it for some time. Stalin would have disapproved, but the combined orchestra got a joyous reception, with loud enthusiastic cheering greeting each solo player as they took their bows.