Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 7 Leningrad, Op. 60 [79:15]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. 1-3 June 2012, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, UK.
NAXOS 8.573057 [79:15]
In December 2010 I interviewed Vasily Petrenko, the chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. He was clearly excited about his Naxos cycle of Shostakovich symphonies. I asked him which of the Shostakovich symphonies he particularly liked and his reply was, “Well I would say that in all of them I see a progression even though we don’t record them in date order. With all of them we can follow the history of his biography and the history of Russia in the twentieth century because they are all closely related to the events of the years that they were written. They are evocative of the events of the political and cultural life of the time in Russia.”
Probably none of the set of fifteen symphonies better reflects the time and events in which it was written than the monumental Symphony No. 7, widely known as the Leningrad. Composed in 1939/40 it quickly became one of the composer’s best known works. Originally Shostakovich had Lenin in mind as a dedicatee but decided it should be dedicated to the city of Leningrad where the majority of it was written. Although controversies have long raged about its true meaning it is not difficult to imagine how the score might reflect the strength and courage of the Soviet citizens; in particular the heroic resistance of the inhabitants of the city of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) that came under siege by Hitler’s invading troops. During this time Shostakovich wasn’t able to able to enlist in the Soviet army owing to defective eyesight. Volunteering as an auxiliary fireman his duties allowed him the time to work on the symphony before he was officially ordered to evacuate to the Russian city of Kuibyshev. Here the world première of the score was given in March 1942 by the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra under the conductor Samuil Samosud.
Smelling a propaganda coup to promote the Leningrad Symphony as a symbol of the bravery, defiance and fortitude of the Soviet armed forces and people the Allies were anxious to perform the score outside Russia as quickly as possible. A microfilm of the complete score was smuggled out of Leningrad via Teheran and Cairo. Consequently the North American première took place in New York in July 1942 by the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini, a performance that was broadcast nationwide on radio. It has been claimed that as many as 20 million people heard the broadcast of the symphony live.
In Testimony by Solomon Volkov (the disputed book of Shostakovich’s memoirs) it was stated that the score did not so much reflect Shostakovich’s abhorrence of Nazi Germany but of Stalin’s Soviet Government, where the composer is reported to have said, “Actually I have nothing against calling the Seventh ‘The Leningrad’, but it’s not about Leningrad under siege. It’s about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off.” Whatever the reason behind the Leningrad it certainly is a powerful work with an effect that I believe can be enhanced by having a broad acquaintance of the dynamics of the time in which it was written.
In this compelling performance Petrenko, who was born in Saint Petersburg, is clearly a committed advocate of the score demonstrating that he has the full measure of the scale of Shostakovich’s writing. The full-bodied sound from the Liverpool Phil is highly effective and the wide dynamics and vivid climaxes are wonderfully controlled. According to Testimony Shostakovich originally gave the titles to each movement; he was later to withdraw them. The immense and infamous opening movement was, it seems, originally entitled ‘War’ and I find it hard to imagine anything else that the music might represent. At 6:48-24:41 the music evokes the expressive, threatening power of impending war, Bolero-style, before breaking out into the full ferocity and savagery of the invasion. In the swirling Adagio I was highly satisfied with the degree of concentration that Petrenko draws from his players. A poignant sense of hopelessness is revealed in an interpretation where it is easy to imagine a bleak and inhospitable Siberian landscape. In the final movement Petrenko from around 13:00 allows the music gradually to gather in weight and intensity, becoming louder, sustaining a profound seriousness. This culminates in a drama of electric intensity.
Petrenko is in his element with Shostakovich’s Leningrad, directing a stunning performance from the Liverpool Phil which is in inspired form from first note to last. Recorded in the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool the sound feels remarkably fresh and the balance is impressive too.
Petrenko is in his element. A stunning performance. The RLPO is in inspired form.
See also review by John Whitmore
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Masterwork Index: Shostakovich Symphony 7