Time was when Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony
was regarded as something of an embarrassment, even by those who championed
the composer’s cause. In a welcome reversal the piece has now
been rehabilitated, as the parade of new recordings confirms. Among
the latter is Mark Elder’s 2013 account with the Hallé Orchestra,
its virtues intact despite poor balances (review
Valery Gergiev’s Mariinsky recording from 2012 comes up trumps
and Dmitri Kitaienko’s – which dates from 2003 – is
one of the glories of his Capriccio box (review
There are others, such as
, which have excited others far more than they have me.
When Paavo Järvi’s Leningrad
recording was first announced
I really didn’t think it would be a contender. In the past this
conductor has struck me as meticulous almost to a fault, and not the
most communicative of baton wavers. That said, a Russian orchestra playing
Shostakovich usually demands a listen. Factor in PentaTone’s reputation
for fine recordings and it would seem this new album is a decent prospect.
Even then I must admit to feeling somewhat blasé; with so many potent
rivals what more could Järvi bring to the piece?
As it happens, quite a lot. For a start the half-hour first movement, with its long, much-derided march, is full of surprises. There’s a sweetness to the introductory section – an innocence, if you like – that seems very apt in the light of what’s to come. Sunny and unsuspecting this music is played with a simple loveliness that had me hearing the notes anew. Even more impressive is the superb recording, whose perspectives are as close to the concert-hall experience as I’ve heard in a very long time.
When it materialises the march is spine-tingling; it’s well paced,
without haste or histrionics, and it’s all the more effective
for that. The Russian woodwinds, so naturally caught, are first-rate
and those cymbal clashes are powerful but proportionate. That’s
very refreshing in a work that’s often presented in a crudely
filmic way, not least when so much of the score’s fine detail
is allowed to shine through. This is the very antithesis of Elder’s
St-Vitus-like version, yet by some unexplained alchemy Järvi never wants
for strength or intensity.
The oh-so-pliant start to the Moderato
has seldom emerged with
such disarming loveliness, its quiet, affectionate recollections accompanied
by a wistful smile. The breath-bating hear-through quality of the playing
and recording beggars belief; it really is as if one were at a live
concert, caught in that almost hypnotic state where one communes with
musicians and audience alike. Also, Järvi adds a penetrating chill to
this spectral music, the like of which I’ve not heard since Gergiev’s
deeply unsettling performance at the RFH some years ago.
In a composer – and a symphony – that’s no stranger
to banalities it’s remarkable that Järvi’s discreet, unhurried
approach brings with it a sustained coherence and logic that never sell
the music short. Even the bleak, upward-winding start to the Adagio
has a beauty that far from minimising the underlying grief actually
seems to intensify it. The RNO strings sound glorious, the dark-toned
woodwinds even more so, and it’s impossible not to be moved –
and mightily so – by these spare, artless utterances. Indeed,
I can’t recall the score being laid bare in such a way, its beating
heart open to the elements.
One might think that such attention to detail is the enemy of purpose
and momentum, but in this case it most certainly isn’t. Even the
rollicking, circus-like episodes – played without recourse to
vulgar emphasis – have a certain dignity that I find most affecting.
And that’s the nub of it; this is a performance that eschews the
fearsome in favour of the fragile, and favours the individual over the
faceless crowd. Indeed, there were times when I wished the ravishing
would never end, such is the heartfelt eloquence with
which it’s delivered.
This conductor continues as he began, with a calm, clear-eyed Allegro
. As so often the result is anything but prosaic,
with the fleeting jauntiness of the first movement caught to perfection.
Järvi also constructs a mean climax, and the music’s underlying
jubilation never succumbs to emptiness or anarchy. The nobility here
is entirely personal – a tribute to the indomitability of the
human spirit, perhaps – and if Järvi seems a tad measured at this
point it’s because there’s so much to filter out from the
surrounding tumult. At the same time tension builds – quietly,
unobtrusively – and all the while one has to marvel at the equally
discreet virtuosity of this Russian band.
It’s not just about detail though, for Järvi shapes the music
in such a way that hidden rhythms and phrases are disinterred as well.
Goodness, is there no end to the revelations of this performance? As
for the finale it unfolds with an unforced, passionately voiced grandeur
that couldn’t be further from the bombast that some find here.
That should come as no surprise, given the number of times Järvi defeats
expectations in this paradigm-shifting performance. Even if you prefer
cruder, more equivocal accounts of this symphony you simply cannot overlook
this extraordinary alternative.
An unaffected, deeply humanising Seventh; quite possibly the best thing Paavo Järvi has ever done.