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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 60, Leningrad (1941)
Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. live, 3 October 2013 and in rehearsal, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
HALLÉ CDHLL7537 [76:20]

Elder has form when it comes to Shostakovich. His recording of the Second Symphony, which came as a freebie with BBC Music Magazine in 1996, is especially memorable. This patriotic tub thumper – a hymn to the Revolution - is hardly the composer’s best work, but Elder and the BBCSO turn in a thrilling performance that’s still my go-to version of the piece. At the time I made a mental note to seek out more of Elder’s Shostakovich, should it come my way. I wasn’t disappointed with his disc of incidental music to Hamlet and King Lear (review). Then one evening last October I heard his broadcast of the Leningrad, from which much of this CD is derived.
 
It was well worth the wait, for this was – and is - as individual and highly charged an account of the symphony as I’ve ever heard. The volatility and risk-taking that arise from a live occasion certainly help, and I remember being utterly overwhelmed by the exciting - but not over-excited – finale. Goodness, what a cogent and very well played Leningrad, a reading that actually makes this piece sound new and invigorating. Quite an achievement, given the over-driven and over-inflated accounts we’ve had to endure from the likes of Andris Nelsons (review).
 
What really irked me about the latter’s Leningrad were the misjudged recording levels that resulted in very audible distortion in the climaxes. Yes, it is a symphony that needs to be played for all it’s worth, but the conductor must stop it from lurching into banality and bombast. Elder achieves that difficult balance, as my saved version of that broadcast so amply demonstrates. Indeed, the lossy BBC sound is mighty impressive, accommodating quiet passages and crushing climaxes without audible manipulation or distress. Given the Beeb’s poor track record with live concerts – the Proms relays come to mind – this is really rather special.
 
With such high expectations you could argue that I set myself up for a fall by requesting the CD for review. And so it proved. In fact the impossibly muted start to the Allegretto had me wondering if there was something amiss with either the disc or my equipment. I cranked up the volume far more than I usually do – and bear in mind I like loud, especially in the Leningrad – but to no avail. John Quinn remarked on this in his review, and editor Len Mullenger was similarly underwhelmed during a session in the MWI Listening Studio.
 
To be fair this is a sporadic problem with other labels too. Some BIS recordings need extra ‘wellie’ before they come alive, and a few of Petrenko’s Shostakovich discs require a bit of knob-twiddling as well. In those cases a satisfactory level is usually attainable, but not in this one. The frisson-inducing start of that Boléro-like crescendo is much too distant and uninvolving, although the performance itself builds as inexorably as it should. Later on the side drum and percussion are particularly well caught, which helped to lift my flagging spirits just a little.
 
Alas, when the decibel count drops so does that essential immediacy, which is not what you want in this most vivid and visceral of symphonies. Even the more spectral second movement – subtitled Memories – seems mild and murky; that strange lift and lilt is there – Elder clearly knows his way around this music – but the strained-through-the-sheets presentation is simply unforgivable. All the more so as the Hallé play their socks off, both here and in the gaunt, despairing Adagio. The strings are particularly impressive, even if it does sound like they’re playing in another room. Inevitably the quiet start to the finale is too quiet, although such is the strength and momentum of this performance that for a moment I was minded to forgive and forget.
 
None of the Shostakovich Sevenths I have on my shelves or on my hard drive is as technically compromised as this one. Granted, getting the recording level right for works with such extremes of dynamic is a challenge, but it’s not an insurmountable one. Also, given that the Bridgewater Hall is one of the finest concert venues in the country it deserves to be shown in a more flattering light. Experience of other Hallé releases - Ireland and Elgar – suggests that while levels are more sensible the hall’s fine acoustics are still not coming through.
 
I dismissed Nelsons’ Leningrad as ‘a musical and sonic pile-up’; I’d be tempted to do the same here, but listening to that broadcast once more confirms that this is a very distinguished performance indeed. Which is why – and in spite of my serious reservations – I’d urge all DSCH fans to hear this disc for themselves.
 
A splendid Leningrad nobbled by poor engineering; frustrating.
 
Dan Morgan
http://twitter.com/mahlerei
 
Previous review: John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Symphony 7