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Dmitry SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 – 1975)
Symphony No 7 Leningrad, Op. 60 (1941)
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky
rec. Studio No. 5, Moscow State Broadcasting and Recording House, February 2003
NAXOS 6.110020 SACD [75:17]


During the first years of its existence the "Leningrad" was probably the most successful new symphony of the whole 20th century. Shostakovich wrote the first three movements so to speak "on site" in the besieged city between July and September 1941. In October that year the authorities evacuated him and his family to Kuibyshev, where he completed the final movement in December. The first performance was given in his new hometown in March 1942 and in July Toscanini, who was sent a microfilmed score, played it in New York. During the next concert season the symphony was performed more than sixty times in the US alone and soon it was being played all over Europe as well. After these first years of intense exploitation it gradually faded. Maybe not into oblivion, but amidst the admiration critical voices also were heard, commenting on "empty rhetoric", "banality" etc. Even the gentle Bela Bartók showed his dissatisfaction, memorably quoting the insistent "War" theme in his Concerto for Orchestra, where he makes the brass laugh at the music. In later years it has been stated that the symphony’s extra-musical "theme" is not so much the war and the German siege, but rather a portrayal of Stalin’s terror of the Russian people.

Be that as it may. Having some kind of programmatic background is a help when listening. I have always felt this – and some other symphonies – to be the musical equivalent to socialistic pictorial art from the 1930s and 1940s. I happened to visit an exhibition at the Ciasma Art Centre in Helsinki a year or two ago, where they exhibited Soviet posters and I immediately drew the parallel: rough-hewn faces, in some strange way dehumanized, glaring colours, aggressive postures, few nuances. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that Shostakovich lacks nuances, but often his palette contains glaring colours and he applies them with a palette-knife or very broad brush-strokes. But there is no denying that he can also be delicate and he sometimes sprinkles woodwind solos over the canvas, just as Rembrandt lets the reflexes of the hidden light brighten up his generally dark paintings.

Dmitry Yablonsky, in the first recording of what is supposed to be a complete symphony cycle, gives a powerful reading of this score, reinforced by the surround sound recording, which on my machine gave impressive results. It is a detailed and at the same time well integrated sound picture with wide dynamics, so wide that when playing at a volume where I could clearly hear the hushed strings and the woodwind in the "pastoral" of the first movement, I was decidedly unsocial when the following side drum accompanied crescendo reached its peak. The orchestra, mainly a recording orchestra but nowadays also giving concerts, sounds good, lacking the subtlety of some of the world class ensembles, but in this music it works well. I hadn’t listen to this work for quite some time, but quite soon I was wholly engrossed in the performance and during this five-quarter-long traversal of the score I more than once conjured up visual memories of a visit to Leningrad 35 years ago, saw again the tank set up on a concrete foundation by the side of the main road to Leningrad as a reminder of the war.

Comparisons can sometimes be odious to a performance one spontaneously likes. My touch-stone version has for many years been The Leningrad Philharmonic under Mariss Jansons, whom I heard at a concert in Stockholm in the late 1980s at about the same time that they recorded the symphony for EMI. I never bought that recording but found it at my local library. Unfortunately the disc was seriously damaged so I could only play portions of it, but what I heard was a deeper, fuller string tone and an even more homogenous body of sound. Interpretatively Jansons seemed more eager, more flexible, even wilder in places. I also own, since many years, Neeme Järvi’s Chandos recording with the Scottish National Orchestra and his is an even more eager and alert reading. He starts the proceedings at considerably faster speed, then he makes much more of the lovely pastoral section, where Yablonsky looses momentum, and the war crescendo becomes, in Järvi’s hands, an orgy in barbaric sounds. All over Järvi’s version is nearly five minutes shorter, and most of the difference lies in the finale which has a springiness and vitality head and shoulders above Yablonsky’s.

Still, on its own merits, Yablonsky’s version is good, the sound is thrilling and it can be safely recommended to anyone wanting it in surround sound.

Göran Forsling

see also review by Paul Shoemaker, Colin Clarke and John Phillips

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