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
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.
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.