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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 - 1975)
Symhony #7, Op 60 "Leningrad"
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitri Yablonsky
Recorded Studio 5, State Broadcasting House, Moscow, Russia, February 2003.
Notes in English and Deutsch.
DVD-Audio playable on DVD players and DVD Audio players.
48kHz/24 bit 5.1 surround sound, DTS surround sound, and 5.1 AC-3 Dolby stereo.
Also available on hybrid SACD.
NAXOS 5.110020 [75.12]

[Standard CD also reviewed below]

Comparison Recording:

Bernard Haitink, London Philharmonic Orchestra - Decca "Ovation" 425 068

I was too young to know what was going on when at the height of World War II the score of this work on microfilm was flown by special air courier via Tehran and London to New York where Toscanini and Stokowski were battling for the privilege of being allowed to conduct the U.S. premier performance. Toscanini won; but reportedly said "I was a fool" when later confronted with the music. Never mind him. I’ve loved this work passionately from the first note the first time I heard it. And I must admit I’m also a fan of Yablonsky’s, so I looked forward to hearing this disk and was not disappointed.

On the DVD-Audio discrete surround tracks the orchestra is focused up-front with hall ambience from the rear channels. The DVD Audio sound is magnificent, utterly overwhelming, with the opening burst of optimistic song, then the tiny, distant snare drum building steadily but inexorably through Shostakovich’s musical double pun on Ravel and (J.) Strauss to the full exploding horror of war and violence. At the climaxes with full orchestra, snare drum, bass drum, timpani, glockenspiel and cymbals, everything is perfectly clear and differentiated, present with overwhelming impact but no fatigue. I’ve never heard an SACD match this quality. In the second movement the strings and winds are sweet and clear without a trace of edginess. Did you know there are pp staccato tremolando flute notes in this movement? The clarinet squeals with appropriate anguish. In the third movement occur the flute and pizzicato string effects that Alan Hovhaness borrowed to such good effect in the slow movement of his Mt. St. Helens Symphony. But when the beautiful dream is over, the nightmare returns, if not quite so explosively as in the Hovhaness. The low string phrases at the beginning of the fourth movement were wonderfully clear and realistic and the long build-ups and long fades are steady and, with this terrific dynamic range to work with, very effective. You probably never heard the subtle col legno effects in this movement. The finale, with its Khachaturian-like lead-up, is definitely over the top, but it is much easier to take when everything is so perfectly clear and undistorted. I had to play it a second time because, in truth, I had never really heard it before.

The DTS tracks are not quite so clear as the DVD-Audio tracks, and the AC-3 Dolby tracks are less clear still, as one would expect. One would also expect that all these tracks would have clearer sound than the CD tracks, but I did not have the CD issue to compare directly.

Is this really a better performance than the Haitink? Both are beautiful recordings, while the DVD-Audio wins by a mile (1.62 km) on sound. As strictly to performance, I won’t know for some time, but right now you’d have a fight trying to take either one of them away from me.

A bizarre thing occurred when playing the DVD compatible AC-3 tracks (which are the only ones you can play on a low-end DVD player) on my Win98SE computer utilising the Software Cinemaster DVD player: the sound at the beginning of the first movement faded in, starting from silence taking two bars to reach full volume. This did not occur when playing these same tracks on my Sony stand-alone DVD player, the first note attacked as it should, so it must be a peculiarity of this software, which is, however, quite popular.

Paul Shoemaker

Colin Clarke also reviews the DVDA version

When called upon to review this conductor’s Alexander Nevsky on CD (also on Naxos), I questioned the recording quality. When my colleague Paul Shoemaker heard it on DVD Audio, the improved sonics seemed to make a big difference .

Alas I have yet to hear that Nevsky on DVD-A, but here from the same forces is a Shostakovich Leningrad that seems to confirm what Paul reported (the recording venue is the same). The sound on this disc is generally excellent, with superb detail and a real sense of space and depth. Only occasional muddying of lower mid-range detail detracts (cello scales about 50 seconds in, for example), yet the presence of, say, the solo violin (just before six minutes into the first movement) is remarkable. Of course, Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony includes in its pages the test of recordings par excellence - the famous crescendo in the first movement. Here, the disc has no problems on the technical side; interpretatively, though, it does not gain sufficient steam to make the impression it should.

Much care has gone into the preparation of this performance. The dance-like second movement demonstrates this amply, with the string staccati nicely presented and accompaniments carefully articulated. Perhaps there is too much evidence of care and too little of abandon, though - squealing clarinets do not seem to dare to be garish and overall this makes for a tame experience.

The third movement is the best part of this ‘Leningrad’ by far. Concentration is well maintained, and there are some beautifully tender arrival points. The manic, animated section is tremendously exciting (and how nice to have accurate violins in their more angular moments!).

The recording triumphs in the finale, where lines come through clearly. The recording copes with the climaxes with no problems at all, yet still conveys real pianissimi.

Well worth hearing, then. There seems to be no such thing as a clearly recommendable Shostakovich ‘Leningrad’ at the moment, despite a number of fine efforts (Gergiev on Philips is perhaps a useful stop-gap). Yablonsky is at least several leagues above the Caetani version that recently came my way .

Booklet notes are by Richard Whitehouse - the musical description part of them is precisely that, of the ‘this happens, then this happens, then that happens’ variety. Much more impressive is the choice of cover ‘Leningrad in 1941’by Andrei Mylyanikov, as bleak a picture of oppressed industrial Winter as one could hope to find.

John Phillips reviews the CD version

Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 - 1975)

Symphony No. 7 Leningrad (1942)
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky.
Rec. Studio 5, Moscow State Broadcasting and Recording House, February 2003. DDD
NAXOS 8.557256 [75’17"]


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Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony has had a very chequered career. It has ranged from extreme popularity to utter disdain and now enjoys what can be seen as a resurrection. London performances of it nowadays are usually well attended and the finale usually brings the house down. Recording companies are also jumping on the bandwagon (several recordings have been issued recently) and Naxos has joined the procession. Naxos has had a recording of the Leningrad in their catalogue for a number of years. This was by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ladislav Slovak. It was well worth replacing as it was far from satisfactory.

So how does the new disc compare? Dmitry Yablonsky comes with a very good background in training for his craft and his orchestra is extremely proficient. The thing I dislike about the performance is that it sounds like a gentle stroll through the intensive drama which is at the centre of the Leningrad Symphony. For example, in the first movement which pictures the onward drive of the Nazis towards the city of Leningrad, the orchestra plays it as if it was a gentle stroll through the countryside. This aspect of the playing is all very well but there are far better renditions in the catalogue. Gergiev, or better still, Ancerl get the picture and recreate the white hot inspiration of the composer, who at the time of composition was actually held captive in the city, and was experiencing the many hardships directly.

The second movement is an intermezzo, one of the few symphonic intermezzi written by Shostakovich. Yablonsky makes quite a good job of it. When however we reach the searing adagio, which, in the right hands is an intense experience, here again is an almost gentle approach. This is just not on, and although there is much correspondence in the press about how improved a performance can be when the full glories of SACD are brought to a recording, I don’t expect to find that this performance will ever be brought up to the level where it is an accurate picture of the composer’s inspiration. The finale steals in, almost apologetically; this movement is meant to be a cry of joy from the heart that the siege is over. Shostakovich brings all the large orchestral weight to bear on the final peroration. Here the orchestra, conductor and recording all deliver the goods, with superbly well balanced sound and with the timpani making their important contribution clearly and without undue prominence.

Unfortunately, one does not buy a disc for the last 4–5 minutes only, and so while I applaud the handling of this part of the score, I can’t help wondering whether it is the composer making it very easy for them.

This new release is also available in SACD format; but I have not heard this.

I approached this issue with some anticipation as I was hoping to be able to recommend it as a budget version well worth owning. Unfortunately this is not the case, and if Yablonsky can get future issues to be played throughout in the spirit of the last few minutes of this disc all will be well. Otherwise, this cycle may end up being better played and recorded than the Slovak cycle, but none the more recommendable for the atmosphere being generated by all. A great pity.

John Phillips

Paul Shoemakers guide to audio formats

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