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]
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
Nelsons’ Leningrad fails on every level; a musical and sonic pile-up.