It seems almost incongruous that Mark Elder and the Hallé orchestra should make one of the finest recordings to date of Shostakovich's famous Leningrad Symphony. In doing so they brush aside so many big-name Russian orchestras and even more illustrious conductors – Mravinsky, Fedoseyev, Kondrashin, Rozhdestvensky and more recently Gergiev and Petrenko, to name but a few of the many who have tackled this programmatic epic.
In fact there have been many accounts over the years that have been either turgid or overblown - or both at the same time. Such may well have given audiences and critics the wrong impression about the 'Leningrad'. It’s a partial explanation, perhaps, of the censure it has often encountered, not least Virgil Thomson's shabby remark that it "seems to have been written for the slow-witted, the not very musical and the distracted". Listening to the Hallé under Elder, however, it becomes clear that in the right hands the work's four grand movements are not full of bombast and longueurs but page after page of grippingly expressive and lyrically attractive music.
Yet more than merely modelling the feng shui like few others, Elder's view of the work's architecture is convincingly panoptic. His conception is realised, sensitively and brilliantly on the whole, by the Hallé's musicians. They audibly delight in the many delicate sequences highlighted by Elder - almost throughout the middle two movements indeed - as much as they thrill to the bracing fortissimos.
In their favourable discussion of this recording recently on BBC Radio 3's 'CD Review' programme, broadcasters Andrew McGregor and Stephen Johnson both commented on the sheer scale of Elder's third movement, noting that he was "taking a huge risk" with an account that was "seriously slow". In fact, Elder is not especially atypical: to judge by the broad survey of recordings in the table below, he is actually less than 30 seconds slower than the median – and indeed quicker than some celebrated accounts:
Leningrad Symphony - third movement timings:
Temirkanov/St Petersburg PO/Signum 13'52
Kondrashin/Moscow SSPO/Melodiya 15'13
Ashkenazy/St Petersburg PO/Decca 15'43
Polyansky/Russian State SO/Chandos 16'58
Järvi/Scottish NO/Chandos 17'06
Kitaenko/Cologne Gürzenich/Capriccio 17'54
Svetlanov/Swedish Radio SO/Daphne 17'57
Bychkov/WDR SO/Avie 18'04
Stokowski/NBC SO/Music & Arts 18'04
Barshai/WDR SO/Brilliant 18'16
Berglund/Bournemouth SO/EMI 18'35
Ahronovitch/SWR RSO/Profil 18'41
Mravinsky/Leningrad PO/Naxos 18'52
Mata/Dallas SO/Dorian 19'01
Wigglesworth/BBC NOW/BIS 19'08
Slovák/Slovak RSO/Naxos 19'20
Bernstein/Chicago SO/DG 19'25
Celibidache/Berlin PO/Documents 22'43
One further possible objection to this version is Hallé's recording level, which is low and somewhat subdued. Yet considering the dynamic range that needs to be accounted for, the quality is perfectly good, superior indeed to many of those in the list above. There is certainly no distortion worth mentioning, as one current review of this disc claims. Bernstein’s famed but flawed recording with the Chicago Symphony for DG has its own, different, greater, audio imperfections – overweening brass for one, but certainly also some dynamic warping. That fact has fallen on many a deaf ear among Bernstein's legion of fanboys.
Back to the Hallé recording, whose technical team has managed to keep audience verbal participation to a bare minimum - that is, until the highly deserved applause at the end. That this is a performance outside the studio makes it all the more remarkable.
Anthony Bateman's notes are detailed and well written, if occasionally fanciful. Incidentally, such has been the propaganda value of this symphony to the Soviet Union and latterly to Russia that it is easily and often forgotten that Shostakovich probably never intended this as a specifically anti-Nazi work. There is plenty of evidence that he wrote the opening 'Invasion' — not his term — movement before the 'Siege of Leningrad' even took place and initially referred to it as the 'Stalin theme'.
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