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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony no.7 in C major, op.60, Leningrad (1942)
WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne/Semyon Bychkov
Recorded February 2003, Köln Philharmonie
AVIE AV0020 [72:30]

Here is the latest in the exciting series of new recordings that are streaming forth from Bychkov and his Cologne-based orchestra on the Avie label. Interestingly, the WDR Symphony Orchestra also offer a performance conducted by Barshai on Brilliant Classics, reviewed for Musicweb by Paul Serotsky in August 2002 . His verdict was that this was a very fine reading, which, for him anyway, seems convincingly to have continued the 'rehabilitation' of this often controversial work. Barshai's version was made in 1994, and the orchestral playing is notably fine, as is the recording.

The WDR players have certainly seen no fall in standards since those days. They produce a splendid tutti sound, well integrated, overwhelmingly powerful where necessary, but also characterised by much distinguished solo playing.

This is an epic work, composed in the darkest days of World War 2, whose reputation goes before it wherever and whenever it is played. That reputation is of course a very mixed one, as there have always been those ready to write it off as a piece of bombast, not worthy of the attention of the serious music lover. That view could be justified, just about, if you were to stop listening roughly twenty minutes into this 70-plus minute work. There is no bombast in the middle two movements, and the finale is in fact one of the composer's finest. The problem is the first movement's so-called 'Nazi-march', which is undoubtedly both ugly and frightening. It seems to me that to object to those features of the music is about as relevant as complaining about the ugliness of Picasso's Guernica paintings, that is to say, it misses the point spectacularly. The ugliness and horror is exactly what the composer wished to depict, and does so with chilling precision.

As far as Bartók's famous supposed lampooning of the march tune in his Concerto for Orchestra goes, it has never been established to my satisfaction whether Bartók was satirising the music itself or that which the music describes, i.e. the very Nazi régime from which he was fleeing. A point worth considering.

Bychkov's performance is a splendid one. He keeps the first movement very tight, starting off boldly, giving the music energy and courage, rather than the civic dignity as found in Haitink, for example. When the notorious march arrives, he keeps bowling along merrily, so that the gradual transformation into something menacing and dreadful is all the more gripping. He handles the memorable coda to the movement magnificently too, the long bassoon solo shaped with sensitive musicianship, the string playing richly expressive.

The Moderato which follows always comes as a relief, a turning down of the feverish temperature of the first movement. More fine solo work here, early on from oboe and cor anglais, later from bass clarinet down in Stygian depths. Textures are transparent, the music always restrained except for the brief central outburst.

The great Adagio may lack a certain breadth. As elsewhere, Bychkov is greatly concerned to keep the music moving, so that structures can be kept convincingly tight. But he draws sublime textures from his string players, most notably the violas, whose long cantilena in the second half of the movement is of the greatest beauty. The playing of the whole string section towards the end of this great movement emphasises the composer's indebtedness to Sibelius (I thought of the conclusion of that composer's 7th), and the soft wind playing preparing the way for the finale makes one catch the breath.

At its outset, the finale is marked Allegro non troppo. Like Stokowski, in his famous 1942 recording (now issued on Pearl), Bychkov infringes this tempo indication, and allows himself to start just too quickly, so that some of the tension of the music is initially lost, and the first really big outburst at around 3:50 is less devastating than it should be - Barshai is more successful here. When the sarabande-like theme of the slower interlude is reached, Bychkov is still a notch or too quick, so that the music loses a little of its weight and breadth. He is somewhat rescued by the sheer quality of his players, who still deliver great intensity, as well a magical pianissimo at the crucial moment when the rocking figure is set up which ultimately, from this quiet start, generates the final climax. When that climax arrives, it seemed to lack a little in inevitability, a problem that could arise from a certain impatience. In his anxiety not to allow the symphony to lose its momentum, Bychkov risks losing some of that epic, monumental quality that it undoubtedly calls for.

One or two aspects of the recording made me worry. There is occasionally an artificial almost metallic sheen to the high string sound; this doesn't happen very often, but is noticeable in parts of the Adagio, and is very unpleasant. Certainly, the fine string section of the WDR Symphony Orchestra needs no undue assistance to give its sound 'bloom'. In addition, there is a tendency to spotlight wind soloists, or to bring woodwind and brass ensemble work forward in the balance; again quite unnecessary, and risking the loss of depth of perspective. The end of the finale suffers in this way, where the sound becomes congested, and the extra brass which Shostakovich calls for cannot be heard as a clear separate entity as they can in Barshai's version.

Nevertheless, this is still a fine reading of a great if flawed work, which I feel will win over many of those listeners who may have found the piece somewhat indigestible in the past. While losing none of its drama, Bychkov brings a tautness to the whole work which is thrilling and bracing. And the playing is, as emphasised above, simply terrific.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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