Shostakovich: The Gamblers

Shostakovich completed only one act of The Gamblers, an opera intended as a word-for-word setting of Gogol's play. It is not difficult to see why he never finished it. The determination to set every word would have led to a finished work of absurd length. But even without this obstacle, the use of a musical style similar to that of his earlier opera Lady Macbeth would have caused severe displeasure to the Soviet regime of the early 1940s, with consequences only too clear to the composer. It is tempting therefore to suppose this was something of a private experiment with a beloved text. As such, it is a fascinating document of what Shostakovich might have written if left to pursue his own artistic interests.

Vladimir Jurowski deserves enormous praise for bringing the work to the ears of many, myself included, for the first time. The music moves between a pulsing accompaniment – which menaces both audience and singers with its forward drive – and a somewhat kaleidoscopic symphony, with numerous lines competing for attention and timbral shifts illuminating the uncanny alterations of momentum at the heart of Gogol's drama. It deserves a wider airing, especially when handled with such detailed and loving attention. Jurowski's orchestra responded well; the all-Russian cast less so. The great Sergei Leiferkus led the way, allowing magnificently rounded tones to emerge from behind the sea of Russian consonants. But neither he nor any of the others seemed to notice the conductor or his orchestra.

A blistering performance of the suite from Shostakovich's early Gogol setting of The Nose took up the first half together with the first symphony, which was beautifully coloured if rather scrappy in places, in part due to the conducting. If this was a slight shame, it in no significant way detracted from a marvellously rewarding evening.

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