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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad”
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 9-12 February 2016, Philharmonie im Gasteig
BR KLASSIK 900184 [73:11]

Mariss Jansons has recorded Shostakovich’s Leningrad symphony at least three times: once in the studio as part of his complete Shostakovich cycle for EMI/Warner, and twice live, once for the Concertgebouw’s own label (which I haven’t heard) and, now, for what is effectively the Bavarian RSO’s label. The most striking thing about this 2016 recording is the orchestral sound. The string sound of the opening is remarkably rich and full - and, dare I say it, German. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but there’s no way this sound could have been generated anywhere east of the Elbe, and those who like their Shostakovich with an edge of Slavic grit should look elsewhere. If it’s the luxurious Central European sound you’re after, though, then this version has a lot to wallow in. There is Rolls Royce playing throughout, the wind solos a particular cause for praise, and, even if they’re not Russian, the double basses generate a fantastically prominent undercurrent that grounds the symphony in the heritage of its hinterland.

Jansons knows this symphony from decades of experience, but he’s not on his best form here, and he doesn’t shape Shostakovich’s great musical paragraphs with anything like as much coherence as he managed for EMI in 1988. His tempo for the first movement’s “invasion theme” is too slow, for one thing, noticeably more so than in 1988; or at least it certainly feels that way. Like the string sound, it lacks bite and, for me, that sapped the tension from the gathering drama so that the explosion of the climax felt a touch formulaic. While the tempo is more conventional, there is also a slightly “flat” feeling to the Moderato second movement, which bumps through its outer sections in a way that is accurate but rather unremarkable, and you could say the same about the central section, which lacks the sense of barely-suppressed-mania that it needs.

Things improve with the slow movement. The pacing is more natural, for one thing, and Jansons manages to evoke the music’s ineffable combination of mystery and anguish. In this he is helped enormously by the orchestral strings, whose Teutonic colouring can seldom have been used to more effect in a Shostakovich symphony, keening angst giving way to driven terror in the central section, creating something simultaneously beautiful and fearful.

Having broken the rut, the finale’s pacing becomes a little sporadic again, but you can forgive Jansons for lingering a little more on the more expansive passages and expending less energy on the faster battle music. The long, slow build to the climax works rather well, not least thanks to the constant growl of the lower strings. However, when the C major peroration finally arrives, it’s completely undermined by an ill-judged (and unwritten) acceleration in the final bars which deflates the tension fatally. Thus the symphony ends in bathos rather than triumph, making me wonder whether the whole journey had really been worthwhile.

All told, then, this doesn’t add up to a triumph for the conductor, and his early EMI/Warner performance is far preferable. The orchestral performance lifts it a little, however, as does the recorded sound. That’s always good from BR-Klassik, and it’s excellent here, as it has to be to capture such a vast sound canvas. Climaxes are thrilling, and there is (mostly) enough inner clarity to give the picture coherence. Percussion is, perhaps, a little too prominent, but it’s Jansons that’s the main problem.

Simon Thompson
Previous review: Michael Cookson

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