To the best of my knowledge this is the first Shostakovich recording that Sir Mark Elder has done for the Hallé’s own label. The Soviet master’s symphonies have featured in two previous releases – one coupling the First and Sixth symphonies (review
) and one pairing the Fifth and Tenth (review
) – but all those performances were conducted by one of Elder’s most distinguished predecessors in Manchester, Stanisław Skrowaczewski.
I was particularly pleased to receive this disc for review and not just because I’ve admired so many previous releases from this team. One of my earliest encounters with the Leningrad
– and certainly the first time I experienced it live – was at a Hallé concert. That was in Bradford at the St George’s Hall over forty years ago. The conductor on that occasion was Arvid Jansons, father of Mariss Jansons, who was a regular and honoured guest with the orchestra around that time. I recall being amazed at seeing the platform filled to overflowing, not least by brass and horns; it was a memorable sight. I’ll be honest; that was so long ago that I can’t remember much about it – though I’m sure I recall that at the end Jansons père
acknowledged the applause by taking the score off the stand on his rostrum and holding it above his head. Happily, we will be able to retain memories of this performance by the present day Hallé since it’s been preserved on disc and it’s well worth remembering.
Elder and his orchestra get off to the best possible start with a purposeful account of the opening pages of the first movement. The woodwind play with delicacy in the transition passage (from about 1:40) which is the bridge to a calmer episode, led by the strings. In his very useful notes Anthony Bateman tells us that Shostakovich described this calm music as representing ‘love for a people who have become the bulwark of culture, civilisation and life’. Here the playing of the Hallé is very sensitive. The first movement of the Leningrad
is dominated by the famous section – or infamous, depending on your point of view – in which, Boléro
-like, the same melody is repeated eleven times in various orchestrations. Anthony Bateman says that this theme is a partial quotation of ‘Da geh’ ich zu Maxim’ from Lehár’s The Merry Widow
, which was one of Hitler’s favourite works. I didn’t know this. Elder does this episode well – and unapologetically. The first four renditions of the tune – up to and including the oboe/bassoon duet – sound almost innocent but from the seventh repetition Elder starts to rack up the tension and incrementally the music becomes more garish and blatant. There’s an inexorable and gripping musical assault until the massive climax is reached. This extended climax (from 17:23) has great power and intensity. Once the tumult has subsided the long bassoon threnody is very well played. As the movement winds down the subdued reiteration of the opening theme on the strings is serene, suggesting calm after the storm. Indeed the closing pages are largely tranquil, raising a question over the distant final hearing of the ‘Invasion’ theme: does this signify that the threat has receded or is it a reminder that ‘we haven’t gone away’?
I think Elder has divided his violins left and right; that’s how it appears – to very good effect - at the start of the second movement. The opening section of this movement sounds innocent, including the lovely oboe solo: there’s a rural – though not conventionally ‘pastoral’ – air to the music. The playing is suitably relaxed. The central 3/8 episode is more strident, the music painted in primary colours; it’s a deliberately provocative intrusion. The reprise of the opening material does not mean that the movement has a straightforward A-B-A structure. The second time around Shostakovich varies both the music and the orchestral colours and this means that though the air of innocence is not wholly lost we’re not entirely unprepared for the seriousness of the movement that is to follow. This concluding section of the movement is sensitively played by the Hallé.
There’s great intensity in the stark wind/brass chords and the answering string recitatives at the beginning of the Adagio
. The flute solo (at 3:56) is beautifully delivered. This passage, which apparently represents Leningrad at twilight, is tender and relaxed. That mood is dispelled by the eruption of a passage marked Moderato risoluto.
Here Elder ensures that the music surges forward with power and urgency. The climax of this section sees the chorale theme brought back, intoned by the brass over strong dotted-rhythm figures in the strings; it’s potent and imposing in this performance. The long wind-down to close of the movement is expertly shaped by Elder. In his hands this movement feels, as it should, to be the emotional core of the symphony.
The transition to the finale, tense and expectant, is very well done. Once the main allegro non troppo
is reached Elder drives the music forward with well-judged impetus: here, as elsewhere in the symphony, I find his pacing extremely convincing. Anthony Bateman’s notes remind us that Shostakovich originally gave each movement a title, though these were soon discarded; under that scheme of things the finale was entitled ‘Victory’. In fact, the victory that is depicted here seems to me to be hard won – I take slight issue with Mr Bateman’s description of the allegro non troppo
as ‘a very Russian revel’; I think it’s tougher in nature than that and it doesn’t come across as a revel here. When the music slows (6:23) the ensuing pages are gravely brooding and Elder takes us seamlessly into the long build-up to the conclusion, which begins as far out as 10:42 – at this point we still have some seven minutes of music to get through. Though Shostakovich may be building towards – or even depicting – victory from now on, the music remains dark and tense and firmly rooted in minor-key tonality. In this stretch of music I found myself admiring, by no means for the first time, Elder’s control, patience and sense of structure. Only at 16:07 do we arrive at the major-key apotheosis of the theme with which the symphony opened over an hour ago. Elder invests the ending with suitable grandeur without tipping over into excess. Unsurprisingly, the Mancunian audience accords the performance a well-merited ovation.
A little while ago I had the opportunity to review
another live instance of this symphony, by the CBSO and Andris Nelsons as well as the studio-made recording in Vasily Petrenko’s Liverpool cycle and I compared both of those accounts with Leonard Bernstein’s epic live version with the Chicago Symphony. How does this Hallé outing measure up? The Nelsons has much to commend it but two things in particular incline me to favour Elder’s version. One is that I don’t think the Orfeo engineers got their balances quite right in Symphony Hall: the CBSO brass rather overwhelms the listener. In addition there are several instances of Nelsons rushing his fences, something which Elder completely avoids. Petrenko’s performance is well played but there were a few interpretative points I noted along the way which I didn’t especially care for though, as with Nelsons, there’s much about his performance that’s positive. In comparison I’m completely comfortable with Elder’s interpretation – if one may use the word ‘comfortable’ about a Shostakovich symphony – and he has the advantage over Petrenko that his version has the immediacy and electricity of a live event. His Hallé forces, who play splendidly throughout, need not fear comparison with Petrenko’s team just down the M62 motorway. Bernstein is sui generis
and he has the resources of the mighty Chicago Symphony at his disposal, not least their imposing brass section. However, it is a reading conceived on an epic scale and it might strike some listeners as too much of a good thing though I think it’s essential Shostakovich listening. Elder seems to me to get this symphony right from start to finish. I think it’s a very considerable performance indeed.
The sound quality on this new disc is very good. I heard part of it recently on the very analytical equipment in the MusicWeb Listening Room
. When our latest report is published readers will see that we found that we had to make some volume adjustments before settling on a setting for the replay of the disc. However, on my own equipment, which I like to think is good quality if not at the level of the Listening Room kit, the recording reproduced very satisfactorily. As I indicated earlier, I think that this recording, made by the label’s usual producer/engineer, Steve Portnoi, is preferable to the Orfeo sound from Symphony Hall Birmingham.
This is another excellent addition to the Hallé label’s series of live performances that shows what an asset the orchestra is to the city of Manchester.
Masterwork Index: Symphony 7