Gergiev is not only a great interpreter of Shostakovich but a great reviser of how we hear the symphonies; he often lends them a more serious and reflective approach. but there's not much that he can do with Sym. #3 "May Day," which is one of the composer's weakest efforts. Written in four movements to be played continuously, there's really no symphonic development here, just a series of gestures and episodes, some of which crop up only once, that appear to be haphazardly thrown together. The Third can be taken as a laboratory of experimental devices that would flower in the Fourth Sym., which is also a strange grab bag of mixed moods and themes with little discipline but a great deal more interest.
For the first time in my experience, Gergiev seems uninvolved in a Shostakovich score, moving from episode to episode with functional, proficient playing and little more. What can he do? The themes in the Third feel like second-drawer Shostakovich, and the choral ending, based on a piece of empty Soviet rhetoric addressed to May Day, is painfully empty of sincerity. (May 1 was adopted by international socialism as a day to commemorate laborers everywhere and later commandeered by the Soviet regime to celebrate the overthrow of the Czar.) For a more committed attempt to salvage this score, I turn to Rozhdestvensky, whose reading can be found on various labels like Moscow Studio and Melodiya.
We all know that the Third is inserted here as a prelude to one of Shostakovich's most acclaimed works, the Sym. #10, the greatest masterpiece of the composer's that Gergiev had yet to record. It's been twenty years in coming, ever since he began his long, drawn-out Shostakovich cycle on Philips. the competition is formidable, with great recordings from Karajan, Mravinsky, Stokowski (on a multi-disc set issued by the Chicago Sym.), and (obscurely) Frank Shipway. The most hair-raising interpretation comes from Dmitri Mitropoulos on a historic Sony release, in mono, dating back to 1954 when he gave the American premiere with the New York Phil. Most recently we've had an intriguing reading by the vastly gifted Vasily Petrenko on Nxos, and one cannot overlook outstanding Soviet efforts from Kondrashin and Rozhdestvensky.
I wanted Gergiev to leap out with a starling, original, passionate reading, but he doesn't. The first movement begins softly, reflectively, even tamely. There's little underlying tension or dramatic anticipation. Themes unfold gently, and although the big climaxes are built with conviction, long stretches of the music seem to proceed with quiet civility -- how odd. There's nothing to criticize in the elegant playing of the Mariinsky orchestra or i the clear, detailed recording, yet decidedly this is an interpretation for introverts, so far, at least.
Mravinsky taught every conductor who came after him to play the Scherzo as a bitter joke at the expense of Stalin, dancing on the dictator's grave after he was safely dead; the music has even been taken as a personal portrait in poison ink. Gergiev doesn't fall in line, however. His version is sweeping and vigorous but without bite. Intentionally so, no doubt. Orchestral voices are beautifully balanced; the pacing is exciting enough. There's no accelerando or climactic crescendo to end the movement. I was reminded that Gergiev has never been a Soviet-basher and tends to give Shostakovich's politically pointed scores apolitical readings, as it were.
The last two movements of the Tenth are also-rans when the conductor has spent all his adrenaline on the first two. Here Gergiev benefits form his steady, musical approach. He fills out the thinness of the writing in the mincing Allegretto, moving the pace along so that the score doesn't lose momentum, a real danger in the more spare, banal sections. But I find myself guilty of special pleading. It seems rather too apparent that Gergiev isn't inspired on this occasion (I've heard two much more involved live readings of the Tenth from him). Either that or he sees this symphony as uniformly gray and melancholy. The Andante that opens the finale feels washed out, lacking any intensity. To be more sympathetic, it's an attempt at disjointed tragedy, perhaps, with each despairing voice adding its own bleak phrases. The concluding Allegro, in Shostakovich's scampering mood, doesn't feel cheerful or ironic. It skips past, and then the work sputters out.
I've done my best to objectively describe what's on this disc, but as a great admirer of Gergiev, I can't hide my disappointment that he didn't rise to the level set by his great predecessors, especially Mitropoulos and Mravinsky.