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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No.7 Leningrad Op.60 [79:15]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. 1-3 June 2012, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall.
NAXOS 8.573057 [79:15]

It must be said straightaway that the orchestral playing on display in this latest instalment of Petrenko’s Shostakovich cycle is an absolute triumph. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic is in fabulous shape at the moment and the playing is truly world class. I have many happy memories of attending numerous concerts given by Sir Charles Groves and the orchestra in the late 1970s but the execution in those days never reached the extraordinary standard to be heard in this magnificent new recording.
The very opening bars of the first movement set out the stall immediately - a drenched string tone and an incisive, forward momentum that immediately catches the attention. Personally, I’ve always disliked the long drawn out central march in this movement. Petrenko has almost converted me. The repetitive nature of the material is rather compelling in his hands and the range of dynamics and colour - with superb individual orchestral solo contributions - makes this an exciting experience. The control of the long crescendo is exemplary and the climax is shattering. Once the march has come to its conclusion we are treated to some ravishing string playing towards the end of the movement with the high, exposed first violins singing out gloriously and perfectly in tune. The whole 28 minute span of this epic movement never slackens for a moment.
The acoustic of the Philharmonic Hall is sweet and detailed. There are two minor criticisms to be made about what is, otherwise, state-of-the-art recording quality. First of all, for a domestic setting, the dynamic range is huge. To hear the percussion clearly at the beginning of the march you really need to turn up the volume but in doing so the loud passages are likely to destroy your speakers. This is a problem regularly encountered in the digital age. Secondly, the loudest climaxes seem to be slightly cramped but that may be just the way the hall is captured by the microphones. Other than that, from a technical perspective, the sound is fabulous.
The second movement - an intermezzo rather than the usual scherzo - immediately demonstrates the excellence of the string section. The Liverpool orchestra has never sounded better than this. There is also a palpable sense of inspiration running through all the sections of the orchestra and the woodwind solos are full of character. At 5:40 the music bursts into life. Brass and percussion ring out before the movement collapses back into its shell and the strings bring the music to its conclusion.
The adagio conjures up the sound-world of Mahler. Yet again, the strings are magnificent in the opening pages. The central section - a battle between strings and brass underpinned with more martial side-drum effects - is awe inspiring. There is a tangible white heat to the playing. The Mahlerian string passage then returns and the movement finishes with an air of foreboding, beautifully delivered by the low winds.
Having always thought that the central movements contain the best music to be heard in the Leningrad I must say that the normally bombastic finale, not usually to my taste, isn’t the least bit bombastic as presented here. It’s thrilling and absorbing. Petrenko makes you hear the music anew and it really is edge-of-the-seat stuff. The level of virtuosity at around 3:30 to 5:00 is amazing. It’s rhythmically tight, relentless, riveting and also incredibly poised. Nothing ever sounds rushed and the final triumphant bars bring the symphony to a hair-raising conclusion. 

The Leningrad is a somewhat uneven work and it can’t be viewed as one of the composer’s strongest symphonies. To make it work you need a conductor who totally believes in the piece and then inspires an orchestra to deliver the goods. Petrenko and his players are flawless. This is an absolute bargain and goes straight to the top of the list. I’m not a huge fan of the Leningrad but I will certainly return regularly to this CD.

John Whitmore 
Masterwork Index: Shostakovich symphony 7