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Shostakovich sy7 LSO0859
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Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 60 Leningrad (1941)
London Symphony Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. live, 5 December 2019, Barbican Hall, London

This is the first disc in Gianandrea Noseda's cycle of Shostakovich Symphonies on the LSO Live label that I have heard let alone reviewed. My understanding is that in general they have been well received. I must admit that nothing particular I hear on this disc encourages me to seek out further volumes. Of course this is well played and the recording is pretty good. I did listen to the SACD stereo layer which is clear but there is little acoustic glamour to the sound and the music rarely develops the crushing weight that makes this work a compelling emotional (rather than simply musical) experience.

Eighty or so years after its creation the Leningrad Symphony remains for many listeners and critics a controversial work. Some see it at best as a propagandist work while others struggle to get beyond the perceived overblown and empty rhetoric. I must admit that having heard it several times in live performance I believe it can be an intense and indeed moving experience. The skill of the conductor is to make virtues out of the form and structure of the work which in lesser hands do appear as weaknesses. And weaknesses are how they sound in this performance. I am not sure I have ever heard a performance less willing to push the musical boundaries of dynamic or attack or simple energy. This is a performance of compromise – often beautifully achieved but whereas this is a work conceived in bold primary oil paints here is a performance executed is tasteful pastels. Yes of course the orchestra do play “loud” or “soft” as the score indicates but time and again I felt that Noseda was not pushing the envelope in which an orchestra as good as the LSO can play with easy comfort. Usually I would applaud a conductor who meticulously observes the directions marked in the score which Noseda undoubtedly does. However, the result here is that the focus on detail somehow undermines the grandiose rhetorical sweep of the work. Noseda is very good at the minutiae but less effective at the bigger, indeed simpler, picture

On disc this has been a work which has received several wholly convincing recordings. Consider some of the conductors who have been especially successful in this work. They are nearly all what might be termed conductors who revel in dramatic and indeed passionate performances. Famously Leonard Bernstein considered his second recording on DG with the Chicago SO as his single finest achievement in the recording studio. For many years Neeme Jarvi's galvanising performance with the SNO on Chandos regularly featured on the “best of...” lists and for good reason. I would always include performances by Russian/Soviet conductors and orchestras who clearly understand the “life and death” narrative that the work clearly portrays. In contrast, Noseda’s more considered objective approach feels just too emotionally detached. Some of the problem is caused by the actual recording which somehow does not expand as the dynamic demands of the music do. So the climax to the notorious invasion theme in the first movement does not overwhelm and crush the listener as it should. In direct contrast Bernstein's Chicago brass earn every one of their legendary spurs with as much of a musical representation of “shock and awe” as you are ever likely to hear. Or likewise this is the kind of passage where Svetlanov's USSR SO blaze with terrifying intensity. The LSO might be loud but they most certainly are not terrifying. The same is true of the symphony's conclusion where ardent-eyed victory is proclaimed. Somehow Noseda fails to convince that the triumph here is anything but empty. I know that it is fashionable to find a subversive subtext in everything that Shostakovich wrote but surely in this part of this work it is simply meant to represent victory and nothing else.

If the outer two movements are emotionally direct and simple, then there are more ambiguities to be found in the inner pair. For whatever reason I felt that Noseda failed to convince here either – the performance seemed to lack direction or intent. Again I cannot fault the playing of the orchestra but there is a distinct lack of tension that needs to underlie even the most superficially serene passages. I am struggling to explain why, but this work has rarely ever engaged me less.

Personally, I believe Shostakovich's “public” symphonies – 7,11 & 12 – are as important a facet of his body of work as a whole as the indisputable masterpieces and that the success of one group cannot be measured without the existence of the other. As such, The Leningrad Symphony remains one of the most important artistic responses to the realities of World War II. This skilled, considered and accomplished performance lacks the immediacy and visceral documentary conviction of the best.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Roy Westbrook

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