Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 - 1975)
Symphony No. 7, Op. 60 Leningrad (1943) [71.44]
St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra/Yuri Temirkanov
rec. live, 22 May 2008, Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland.

The name Yuri Temirkanov has popped up from time to time, usually in romantic repertoire such as Mahler and Tchaikovsky, the latter recordings of which I’ve lived with quite happily for years, though have to admit their acoustic imaging can be more quirky than absolutely believable. He has a long track record as a Shostakovich conductor – as does the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra as performer, so a release like this one should not be taken lightly, even in a crowded market.

This is not the first time this conductor/orchestra has recorded this piece. There is a 1995 RCA Red Seal version which is still to be had. In an ideal world I would be able to conjure forth a copy of this and do an A/B comparison, but I don’t have the earlier recording to hand. Looking at the timings I see a dramatic difference between the Adagio third movement: 19:40 first time around, 13:52 in this more recent release. Otherwise the readings are so close as to make little real difference. I’ve cast around for a few opinions on this earlier recording and read mixed reports; “no match for Wigglesworth’s” being Raymond Clarke’s opinion on these pages when reviewing a BIS competitor, but with positive responses being picked up elsewhere. My own formative impressions of this music were with Paavo Berglund on an EMI cassette, and the strengths of this recording were only really shifted for me through a belated discovery of the sheer elemental power of Kondrashin’s Moscow version from the midst of the Cold-War 1960s.

Yuri Temirkanov’s recording here doesn’t have quite the bite of Kondrashin, with the first movement taken at a slightly more relaxed pace, but more particularly the pungent winds and rough-hewn brass of the Moscow orchestra having a defining effect on the overall sound. Both have the occasional intonation problem with winds, but Kondrashin’s recording is hard to beat by any standard. The immediate first impression with this Signum/Radio de la Suisse Romande recording is that it is a bit warm and woolly, at least after directly switching from Kondrashin. This is this kind of aural picture to which the ear becomes accustomed, and with this recording the picture improves with better equipment. This might seem a trite thing to say, but is not always the case – some recordings revealing ever more negative aspects the higher the resolution. In this case the restless percussion of that famous march and that powerful brass fill your speakers perfectly adequately, though with that balance erring towards the tubby the intensity of the climax is not quite so overwhelming as one might have hoped. You can hear that the players are giving everything. The piccolo solos in this first movement are especially fine. However, the recording is a bit lacking in dynamics and oomph in comparison to some.

The second movement chugs along well enough, but only just hangs together at around 4:54 where there seems to be a difference of opinion as to tempo among the sections. Again, detail and punch are held in check somewhat by the rather boomy sound picture, though there are good contributions from bass clarinet and other soloists. That Adagio is for me a crucial movement, and one where the intensity of Berglund and the orchestral colour of Kondrashin merge into something of an ideal picture. Temirkanov is good, noble and intense, gripping our attention with Shostakovich’s sustained lines. He is a little let down by the intonation in the woodwinds, and for me this particular section would have been helped with a slightly less sustained tempo. The music can take it, but the rather un-vibrant recording means that the duration of the notes is not equalled by the quality of sound needed to keep the ear involved and enthralled. Again, wind solos are well taken, and the musical argument is effectively communicated – it just all seems to lack a last ounce of magical lustre-dust which would bring it into the top drawer. The fast section which starts at 9:02 goes at a considerable gallop and generates plenty of excitement. It is here that Temirkanov stamps one of the main climaxes to the entire symphony, and very potent it is as well. Kondrashin kicks in with this moment at 06:51, and initially makes it sound more like some kind of transitional passage. The biting brass remove this impression, but it is clear that Temirkanov puts more structural weight on this section.

As for the finale, there is a certain amount of doubt with the string discipline in places towards the beginning, but there is plenty of impressive orchestral technique on display. This is however where the wool over the microphones does take its toll. The brass cuts through well enough, but the ear is delivered something with too much of an amorphous rhythmic outcome. I don’t blame the orchestra or the conductor in this: once again, you can hear through the recording that everything is happening 100%, but there is a veil of padding through which all this has to struggle before reaching our ears, robbing it of some of its impact. The eloquent final triumph is a glorious moment, but brass and ‘the rest’ do seem to inhabit separate worlds. Only the applause at the end and one or two innocuous coughs here and there give away the ‘secret’ that this is a live performance.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No.7 is very much a war symphony, surrounded as it is with all of those stories of smuggled microfilm copies of the score, and the music being blasted out over the battlefields around besieged Leningrad in a morale-boosting psychological warfare gesture; the latter with its echoes as far down as Donald Sutherland’s tank in the film ‘Kelly’s Heroes’ and beyond. I would love to say the piece never sounded as good as here, but this would not be the case. The performance is largely excellent, but the rather boomy and woolly recording torpedoes some aspects of the good work being done. Everything is there, and this is not a bad live recording, but having to seek out detail or having crucial rhythmic elements flattened in this kind of way means the emotions are never going to become as engaged as with better produced recordings, however good the orchestra. In other words, this is a fine performance, but unfortunately not a first choice recording.

Dominy Clements