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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1907-1975)
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 60 (1941) [73:44]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. live, 10/12 November 2011, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, UK
ORFEO C 852121 A [73:44]

Experience Classicsonline

  2012 is the seventieth anniversary of the Leningrad Symphony’s first performances, so we shouldn’t be surprised at a few new recordings coming out to mark the occasion. This one from Nelsons and the CBSO was recorded live in Birmingham in November 2011. Those performances preceded some enormously successful performances of the same work from the same team at the Proms and the Lucerne Festival. These were broadly very well received, so how does the recording stand up?
Pretty well. The finest thing about it is the orchestral playing, which is really very good indeed. There is a collective sense of adventure right from the bounding energy of the first phrases, strings surging upwards, buoyed up by rakish brass and timps. It is the strings who continually impress throughout. They are at their best in the Adagio, which is spectacularly good. The broad string sigh that opens the main theme pulsates with feeling and soulfulness that make it stand out as truly remarkable. It reminds you that this movement, above all the others, is Shostakovich’s love letter to his home city, a starry-eyed vision of the Nevsky Prospect and the Neva River by twilight. The cello tone that picks up the second theme at the end of the movement is simply delicious. The winds are just as special, and the frequent solos show up the CBSO players in the best possible light. Listen, for example, to the optimistic wistfulness of the flute that introduces the second theme after the first movement’s first subject has subsided. Then there’s that doleful bassoon lament that pours out its grief after the climax of the first movement has subsided. The “invasion theme” - and let’s call it that for the sake of argument; I know not everyone agrees - gives each section a chance to show off what it can do. The orchestral climaxes are thrilling when they come, but just as impressive is that sense of a collective identity, pulling together as an orchestra to give this work all they can.
There are problems, though; one of which is the recorded sound. In one sense it’s admirably clear, and the engineers must have placed the microphones carefully so as to pick up as much as they could. Glinting details, such as the chattering xylophones that so often add a touch of horror to the tutti passages, are the rewards of this approach. However, recording this work live carries intrinsic problems that aren’t solved here. The extreme range of dynamics on the go is one of the things that makes the work so popular, but it also makes it difficult to find a microphone balance that works for all of it. Studio recordings have more of a chance of smoothing this out or of achieving the right balance, but a live recording largely lacks those opportunities and it shows here. The sound of the opening phrases made me feel as though I was right in the midst of the strings, hearing them come at me from every direction. The same was true as the invasion theme began. Its first appearance on col legno strings sounds precise and delicate against the snare drum. However, as the movement progresses and the tidal wave of force grows, the recording leaves itself with nowhere to go. The acoustic that worked so well for the start doesn’t work so well for the mid-point. There is audible distortion at some of the bass-drum thuds at the movement's climax because we are just too close to what is going on. A good example is the beginning of the second movement’s central Trio section: having just been treated to a great display of delicacy from the strings, the skirling clarinet that launches the Trio is right next to your ear-drum in a way that sounds raw and unappealing. That happens too often in this recording and, while it’s not a reason for ruling it out, it’s a consideration.
What of Nelsons’ direction? In some places I found him very satisfying, in others a little disappointing. He gauges the opening just right, for example, and he shapes the third movement with buckets of tender loving care that help to make it so special. That movement’s central section is stormy and defiant, even tragic in the way it disrupts the poetry of the composer’s meditation. I like the way he points up the last two notes of each phrase of the invasion theme with a cheeky flick, suggesting a sneer of insolence. The pacing and mood of the second movement are also just right: the strings are a combination of the tentative and the jokey, and they tiptoe around the score like a group of children who have just discovered something horrible. However, all is not well elsewhere, and I repeatedly worried about Nelsons’ control of the big arches of rhythm. It goes without saying that the invasion theme grows in power as it develops – that much is unavoidably written into the score – but it gives the impression of getting subtly faster as it develops: the difference isn’t much but once you pick it up it’s impossible to ignore, detracting from the iron-clad logic that this passage should have and giving the impression that theme is running away from him. The same problem with rhythm comes in the trio of the Adagio, where the snare drum seems to be half a beat ahead of the rest of the orchestra. To make up for this, elsewhere he drives the symphony with energy and plenty of Slavonic passion so that you are never short of excitement. He embraces the extremes, bringing each episode - in this very episodic symphony - to vivid life. I liked his take on the ending, too: he slows down the final pages to an almost funereal pace, draining the final peroration of every ounce of optimism or, still more, triumphalism. Some might say Nelsons is exposing it as a damning indictment of Soviet control, and perhaps that’s true, but a wise man once told me that whatever you’re looking for in Shostakovich’s music you’ll be able to find, so perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into that.
This is a worthwhile recording, then, and decidedly more than that in places. It’s flawed, but the high points are so good that, for many, they will outshine the problems.
Simon Thompson

Dan Morgan also listened to this disc

I came to Leonard Bernstein’s classic Chicago recording of the Leningrad on DG later than most, and it didn’t take long to realise what a formidable performance it is. Dramatic, insightful and utterly convincing it’s also well recorded, which makes it one of the front-runners in the Shostakovich 7 stakes. I’m not persuaded by Vasily Petrenko's way with this composer’s music, which strikes me as technically superb but otherwise rather superficial. Such criticism certainly doesn’t apply to Kondrashin, Rozhdestvensky, Gergiev, Ashkenazy or Wigglesworth, all of whom dig deep into this problematic score and find something close to greatness.
Greatness may not be the first word that comes to mind in this symphony, whose first-movement march is often cited as evidence of Shostakovich’s irrevocable banality and bombast. As always it’s a question of context – as indeed it is in Mahler – and such episodes of unashamed rudery usually serve as an ironic/laconic counterpoint to music of contrasting substance and strength. Getting the balance right is the hard part. Without these frank and sometimes frequent grotequeries these symphonies lose their essential lope and leer; overplay these elements and they sound irredeemably awful. Thankfully I haven’t come across many Shostakovich recordings that fall into this category, although Bychkov’s Eleventh for Avie comes perilously close (review).
Which brings me to Andris Nelsons, whose recent Lucerne Shostakovich Eighth on Blu-ray impressed me enough to nominate it as a Recording of the Month (review). Quite apart from the peerless playing of the Royal Concertgebouw – now there’s an orchestra that can tackle such dichotomies with aplomb – Nelsons shapes this most equivocal score as persuasively as Mark Wigglesworth, whose BIS recording of the Eighth is one of the finest in the catalogue. Both conductors manage the alchemist’s trick of distilling something precious from music that might otherwise be – and often is – dismissed as dross. This is why I had high hopes for this new Leningrad.
Recorded live at two CBSO concerts last year, this Seventh is very closely miked. That, together with less than impeccable ensemble – especially in that remorseless first movement – makes for pretty uncomfortable listening. The soundstage is rather compressed too, and balances are far from natural; moreover, in those brutal climaxes there’s evidence of overload, which is very disappointing indeed. Technical issues aside, Nelsons seems to revel in the music’s banalities, and his phrasing of the Boléro-like march is very odd indeed.
The Moderato is much better though; it’s bright and airy, rhythms are nicely sprung and those brazen interludes are well judged. There’s some characterful woodwind playing as well; now this is much more like it. What a pity it doesn’t continue in this vein. The start to the Adagio isn’t as anguished as it can be – in mitigation it’s not overwrought – and the string sound is much too fierce for my tastes. Otherwise the movement is sensibly paced and its strange mood is carefully calibrated. For all that there’s a nagging sense of ‘nearly but not quite’, that jaunty tune heralding a return to ear-shredding brashness. No, Nelsons’ overall shaping and projection of this music is just too awkward and arbitrary for my tastes, and that robs the symphony of its dark and compelling narrative.
The Allegro is suitably taut at the outset, although I sense that Nelsons has to push the music forward rather than letting it grow naturally. That somewhat overdriven quality is emphasised by the strident tuttis and intimidating closeness of the orchestra; also, the gauntness and despair is not as overwhelming as it should be. More importantly, the structure of this movement sags under the weight of unnecessary underlining and emphasis. This results in sporadic progress and wilting concentration, a potentially disastrous combination in a one-off concert but just deadly in a recording.
As for that agonising finale it’s horribly overdramatised and crudely caught, but then oblivion is to be welcomed by this point. What a strange Shostakovich ‘sound’ the CBSO makes, not at all like the uniquely trenchant blend we hear from other fine bands. Of all the Leningrad symphonies I have on disc one stands head and shoulders above them all; Ashkenazy and the St Petersburg Philharmonic on Decca. They simply energise and illuminate this score like no others I know; add to that focused, incandescent playing and demonstration-quality sound and you have the makings of a classic Shostakovich Seventh. However, a quick Google suggests it may have been deleted; beg, borrow or steal a copy or, failing that, get the download.
Nelsons’ Leningrad fails on every level; a musical and sonic pile-up.
Dan Morgan






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