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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906–1975)
Symphony No.1 in F minor, op.10 (1925) [34:37]
Symphony No.7 in C "Leningrad", op.68 (1941) [80:49]
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
rec. live, June 1988, Orchestra Hall, Chicago DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 7587 [66:43 + 53:11]
Experience Classicsonline

When Shostakovich wrote his 1st Symphony he was a 19 year old student and he took the world by storm. By the time he came to create his mammoth 7th Symphony, written during the siege of Leningrad in the Great Patriotic War, he had endured the wrath of the Party machine with his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. He had also written the 5th Symphony, which he claimed was a Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism. Do we believe this? Of course we don’t, at least we don’t now we know the details behind the composition. This is spelled out quite clearly in Testimony - which I believe is the autobiography of the composer, although there is still conjecture over this point.
 
The 7th Symphony has never, really, reached the popularity of the astonishing 8th – a truly great, and thoroughly devastating, war Symphony – or the 5th or 10th. The stumbling block has always been the notorious middle section of the first movement where a simple theme is repeated over and over again, with the orchestration growing in size over a repeated two bar side-drum figure. Originally we were told that this was supposed to depict the Nazi war machine as it attacked the city but later Shostakovich said that it was a portrait of Stalin (as is the scherzo of the 10th) and his machinations. It takes a performance of some stature and subtlety to make this music sound frightening and monolithic - not just a poor man’s Bolero.
 
Bernstein recorded the 7th Symphony in the early 1960s with his own New York Philharmonic. It was initially on 2 LPs in a boxed set coupled with the 1st Piano Concerto played by André Previn. The Symphony was re–issued on CD SONY SMK 47616 T3, and the Concertoon CD SONY SMK 89752. If memory serves me correctly, it wasn’t entirely successful in both performance and sound. This DG version, however, is magnificent. Everything goes right from start to finish. Bernstein holds the first movement together magnificently. The opening paragraph, with two wonderful tunes which are never used in the development section - mainly because there is no development section per se -  is very well handled. Oddly, the trumpets which punctuate the timpani blows at the start are somewhat brazen and rather vulgar but this sound soon stops. Then comes the middle section. Here, Bernstein slowly screws up the tension, keeping a rock-steady tempo. By the time we reach the climax all hell is about to break loose and take over. But the “recapitulation” bursts in and the music calms down. Beautifully done here, the gradations of volume are very well handled. The final page, with its ghostly, not to say ghastly, reminiscence of the middle section is quite hair–raising in its simplicity.
 
The delicate, dance–like, second movement is light and airy, feeling like ballet music at times. The unruly elements are kept in check and this is as fine an exposition of this movement as one could hope for. The slow movement seems more beautiful and less stressful than I’ve ever heard it before. Towards the end, Bernstein injects the music with a large dose of tragedy and the movement ends in desperation, which is how the quiet opening of the finale begins. Before long, however, Bernstein has pulled out all the stops and we’re plunged back into the fighting, tension and strain of the first movement. The volume grows, the orchestration fills out and the coda, which so often can sound bombastic, is built, not as a victory, but certainly not as a tragedy, rather as real defiance in the face of adversity – whether it be Stalin’s subjugation of the Russian people or the Nazi war-machine.
 
This is a very great performance in every way: the playing, the direction and the intelligence which Bernstein brings to his interpretation.
 
The 1st Symphony, which precedes the first movement of the 7th on CD1 isn’t quite as successful. Here Bernstein seems to over-point the grotesque nature of much of the music. That said, there is still much to admire in his view, and the slow movement is especially well done.
 
This issue won a Grammy in 1991 and I am not surprised. The engineers have excelled in creating a wide dynamic range which encompasses the very quietest of whispers and the largest orchestral sound thrown at them – and there are some very big sounds from the full orchestra. Priced at just a little more than one single CD this is well worth having even if you have other versions of these works. It’s doubtful you’ll ever hear them played with such passion and searing, white hot, insight and intensity ever again.
 
Not so much a must-have as a can’t live without.
 
Bob Briggs
 

 


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