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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 7 in C major Op.60 (1941)
Russian National Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
rec. Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, 2014
Hybrid SACD/CD Surround/Stereo, reviewed in surround sound
PENTATONE PTC5186511 SACD [72:59]

It is with some trepidation that I add a fourth MusicWeb International review on this issue, not least since my predecessors are such experienced reviewers and have reached a consensus on its all-round excellence. It was a MusicWeb International recording of the month. I broadly concur with that view, but with a few caveats in terms of its place in the hierarchy of those recorded Shostakovich Sevenths known to me.

However I have no caveats in terms of the work itself. It is easily Shostakovich’s longest instrumental piece, and the inspiration seems to me remarkably high throughout. Most commentaries (including the booklet notes here) have reservations, and mostly about the central section of the first movement, with its dozen statements of the same theme and its graduated crescendo. One complaint often heard is that it is based on a new theme — not a development of material from the exposition. At least one writer has made a good case for the repeated rhythm and the designedly banal tune of this section actually being derived from elements of the first subject (Hurwitz: Shostakovich Symphonies and Concertos, Amadeus Press 2006, pp.83-86). In other words, put aside the disputes over the music’s literal meaning and the more cloth-eared of the critiques, and you find a majestic piece of pure music, dealing with weighty matters (of whatever origin), and on the grandest scale.

Järvi certainly has the measure of this vast structure and the RNO is superb, as for the most part is Pentatone’s surround sound recording, which though realistic with plenty of impact, lacks a degree of atmosphere. The interpretation is a fairly central one, with no idiosyncrasies or unaccustomed tempi. The first movement is powerfully done, aided by the range of the recording in giving full value to the enormous crescendo of that central section. So too it is a delight to hear all the detail of the changing orchestration of those eleven repetitions. The second movement is the one where there is least consensus among recordings. Here with Järvi we have the typical 11-12 minute jogtrot of most modern versions, as against the earlier Russians who knew the composer, such as the 10:33 of Kondrashin in 1975. Yevgeny Mravinsky in 1953, with the Leningrad Philharmonic just over a decade after the siege and first performances, takes a fretful, urgent 10:10. This sounds just right, but no one has taken any notice since it seems. Bernstein (in his DGG version not his CBS one), ever one to go the way his feeling takes him, extends this Moderato to an immoderate 14:48. The wonderful Adagio is beautifully played, although several others find more overt passion in this music. One misses that febrile grittiness that some wind sections find in the opening chorale, surprising from a Russian source or perhaps just a further example of the globalization of orchestral sound. But the central quicker section of this movement (Moderato risoluto) is superb in Järvi’s hands, with a towering climax capped by thrilling trumpets. The finale relates the episodes to each other very well, and the movement builds inexorable momentum through to a resplendent peroration.

In summary this is a fine disc but not the whole story of the Seventh. For that you might need at least three versions. First you will want a Russian recording from the era when a Russian orchestra sounded different, not least in the snarling shrill vibrato of the trumpets. Ideally that will be Mravinsky, the composer’s favourite interpreter, in one of the various incarnations of his 1953 recording. The mono sound is good for a Russian disc of the era. If that proves too elusive or you want a bit better sound, then Kondrashin in the 1970s or Rozhdestvensky in the 1980s will serve. In the 1990s and a bit less old school Russian in timbre is the St Petersburg Philharmonic (as the Leningrad Philharmonic is now called) under Ashkenazy – a strong performance and prefaced by a recording of the composer giving a brief radio broadcast from besieged Leningrad in 1941, translated in the booklet. (“An hour ago I finished two parts of a large symphonic composition…the life of our city goes on as normal”).

Then you might need one of the many fine versions from the West of the last thirty years, and two of the great Shostakovich conductors head the list. Neeme Järvi (Järvi père) in 1988 on Chandos with the Scottish National Orchestra is one of the swiftest of all (69:06 overall) and among the most compelling, while Bernstein and the Chicago Symphony’s live performance in June 1988 must be the most incandescent reading ever recorded, one of the very few after Mravinsky where the players play as if their lives depended on it. If you can take that tempo for the second movement, you will encounter astonishing commitment, from everyone, and you will leap from your chair when the tireless Chicago brass blaze their way through the coda. Järvi fils and most others are a bit tame after that. But if you want an SACD version, then this Pentatone disc never lets the music down. It belongs in terms of insight with the SACDs of Kitaenko (Capriccio, in a cycle which alas splits the Seventh across 2 CDs), and with Jansons (on the RCO live label rather than his EMI version). Then there are Gergiev’s two SACDs, either with the Mariisnsky players on their own label (2012) or in a more urgent version on Philips (2006) when the Mariinsky musicians were joined by players from Gergiev’s Rotterdam orchestra. But more urgent still, and the best of Gergiev’s three versions, is on the wonderful recent four-disc blu-ray filmed collection of all the fifteen symphonies and six concertos, caught live in Paris (Arthaus Musik 2015). You will hear more for instance of the bass lines there even than on the SACDs.

Finally I suggested earlier that this a pure symphony, and you don’t need to know much about the background and disputed meanings of its episodes (for which the composer gave titles then withdrew them, and further different clues at different times) to enjoy it, any more than you need to know something of Napoleon’s career to enjoy Beethoven’s Eroica. Nonetheless there is an extra dimension of appreciation to be gained by knowing something of the circumstances in which it was written. Brian Moynahan’s book Leningrad: Siege and Symphony will fill the bill for now, but another by Matthew Anderson (Symphony for the City of the Dead) is to be published next month. Reading the harrowing details of the siege of Leningrad is not for the faint-hearted, but it becomes clear that while the history might not be essential for appreciating the symphony, the symphony is an important part of the history, both of the beleaguered city and of the country at war. Despite the purist stance of Pentatone’s presentation – the disc is labelled simply “Symphony No.7” – this will always be the Leningrad Symphony.

Roy Westbrook

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan (Recording of the Month) ~~ John Quinn  ~~ Dave Billinge



 




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