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The Gamblers

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall

A couple of weeks ago I was bemoaning the fact that Prokofiev’s The Gambler was based on a novel by Dostoevsky rather than Gogol. Now, hot on the heels of Covent Garden’s Prokofiev, the LPO and a fine line-up of Russian singers has shown us, in a semi-staged performance under Vladimir Jurowski, what Gogol could do on the same theme.

It would be daft, of course, to blame one work for not being another but comparisons are inevitable, with the performance coming so soon after the Royal Opera’s The Gambler. The disadvantage of Shostakovich’s opera The Gamblers is that he didn’t complete it, barely finishing the first act, so it’ll never get the sort of staging lavished on Prokofiev’s wonky piece.

What the 50 minute fragment does give us is a good idea of a work that coheres theatrically, written in the composer’s mature style (it came between the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies). Had he gone on to set the whole of Gogol’s play, it may not have been a Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk but it’s a buoyant score, laced through with brooding intensity and marked by Shostakovich’s characteristically perky orchestrations.

We got a pretty good idea of the work’s dramatic acuity from director Irina Brown’s presentation, which included costumes, card tables and assorted props. A strong quartet of gambling addicts was headed by Sergei Leiferkus, with a powerful Ikharev, the hustler who takes them on, in tenor Mikhail Urusov and a likeable dopey balalaika-plucking servant from Vladimir Ognev.

Jurowski, who’s shown us before that he’s game for a laugh, emerged from a card duel with leader Alex Velinzon to conduct a sharp, fulsome performance of a score that’s well worth a listen, despite its sudden foreshortening.

The Gamblers was preceded by the suite from Shostakovich’s earlier Gogol-based opera The Nose, written in jauntily experimental mood when the composer was scarcely out of his teens. Then came a slightly routine performance of the playful First Symphony, an immature work by a boistrous 18 year old but a good indicator of great things to come.


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