Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 60 (1941)
Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. June 2012, Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, Russia. Stereo and multichannel. DSD.
I first heard Valery Gergiev conduct the Leningrad at the Royal Festival Hall some years ago and was struck by the haunting, elegiac quality of that fine performance. It’s a tough piece to bring off, as the recent Nelsons CBSO recording confirms (review). Apart from the variable sonics I found the latter reading brash and naively triumphal, which robs the work of its essential ambiguities and dark equivocations. I can’t deny its banalities, but as I remarked in that review such things take on an entirely different cast in the right context. I also commended Ashkenazy’s St Petersburg account on Decca, which combines musical substance with top-notch sound. Inexplicably it’s been deleted, although a quick Google confirms it’s available as an mp3 download.
Gergiev’s unfolding Mariinsky Shostakovich series began with the ‘anarchist’s hand grenade’ that is The Nose. Well sung, played and recorded it appeared to augur well for this project (review). That said, I was distinctly underwhelmed by the symphonies that followed, the much-lauded Nos. 1 and 15 especially. I was surprised to find that the trenchancy and wit that characterise The Nose was in short supply; moreover, the playing and sonics weren’t on a par with that first release. Which is why I approached this new Leningrad with some trepidation. Would this be yet another faulty piece of ordnance that, once lobbed, would fail to explode?
First impressions are favourable, with Gergiev striking a convincing balance between jauntiness and foreboding in the music that leads up to the infamous march. As for the sound it's suitably deep and sonorous, although some listeners may find the distant and somewhat spongy timps blunt the music’s dramatic edge. That matters much less if one is drawn into the performance from the start, which is exactly what happens here. Gergiev finds an inexorable momentum and logic, and he ensures the march is much more than a brazen piece of populist pap. There’s genuine terror and breadth in this advance, and its wide dynamics are well caught.
Gergiev’s even finer in the two inner movements. One of my abiding memories of the RFH Leningrad is the chilly, spectral quality he distils from the Moderato, originally titled Memories. The ghostly procession is reprised here to superb effect, and the orchestra play with great commitment and feeling. Crucially, in the troubled Adagio Gergiev avoids the hollow bombast that so fatally undermines Nelsons’ Leningrad (review). This extraordinary combination of quiet inwardness and profound uncertainty is a potent reminder that this symphony is more complex and, yes, more subtle, than its detractors would have us believe. The range of mood and colour that Gergiev coaxes from his band is remarkable, and the goose-bump quotient is considerably higher than I remember from that London concert.
Any caveats? If you listen on good-quality headphones you may find the conductor’s audible grunts and goadings somewhat distracting. Any such reservations are quickly forgotten in a deeply etched Allegro that’s alternately as gaunt and as stoic as I can recall. Indeed, Nelsons’ misjudged reading seems even more so in the light of this far more penetrating performance. It’s always a relief to find a conductor who delves into Shostakovich’s conflicted psyche and doesn’t flinch from what he finds. Just take that extended peroration at the close, so often made to sound crudely triumphant; but as Gergiev forcefully reminds us this is a Pyrrhic victory, its outward celebrations a mask for inner turmoil.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; the Leningrad is a substantial and unsettling work that runs its successor close in terms of musical coherence and sheer dramatic intensity. As for Gergiev, he certainly makes amends for earlier disappointments; the engineers must take a bow as well.
Unflinching, unerring and, above all, illuminating; a searing Seventh.
Dan Morgan  

Unflinching, unerring and, above all, illuminating; a searing Seventh. 

Masterwork Index: Shostakovich 7
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