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, UK
Reviewed in surround sound.
LSO LIVE LSO0859 SACD [74:58]
I was fortunate to be at the concert that was the source of this recording and reviewed it very favourably. Now, score in hand, I can see that one source of its excellence is Noseda’s scrupulous attention to the expression marks. One early example of that: this “Leningrad” Symphony sets off with a determined tread, forte, not the ff sometimes heard, the strings digging deep and the woodwinds adding their harmonic asperities with relish. When the quiet rocking melody arrives, the violins sweetly evoke some rural idyll. In just six bars for strings between figures 16 and 17, Shostakovich marks them p, which quietens to pp, then a crescendo is indicated before a ppp subito - that sudden hush is remarkable when it arrives after such a variety of soft playing precisely articulated.
There are many such examples in this very accurate performance, but that one perfectly captures the tension in the air, though solo piccolo, then solo violin, still whistle nervously to keep up some cheer. That ‘cheer’ of course is ended by the quiet indication by a side-drum - that the most famous, or notorious, passage in all Shostakovich. The vast crescendo of repetitions of the “invasion theme” is immaculately controlled by Noseda, the tempo properly metronomic. The climax is shattering, the ensuing restoration of calm rather uneasy. The long recapitulatory bassoon solo from Daniel Jemison is very eloquent. (My pre-printed concert programme lists principal bassoonist Rachel Gough as on stage that night, so it was she I praised in my concert review. But the CD booklet, which also laudably names every player on the recording, is of course printed after, so presumably correct). In the coda, the LSO’s soft reiteration of the first theme in the strings is like a benediction, not the only hint of religious feeling in this work.
The second movement features some fine LSO wind playing, first from Olivier Stankiewicz’s oboe, whose tune returns near the end on bass clarinet, its dark woodiness nicely caught by the recording. The squealing E flat clarinet leading the middle section is notable also, but then, this orchestra has long had a succession of notable wind players, and the Seventh Symphony showcases all of them at various points. As a group, they all (except flutes, but with horns and harps) launch the noble third movement, Adagio ff, with a majestic sonority, the succession of minims suggesting a Russian chant of liturgical splendour. At the climax of the swifter central section, the trumpets peal with great brilliance. When the strings quietly return with the opening wind chant, it is another benediction.
More fine playing marks the finale, and Noseda is very skilful in the long, almost imperceptible, transition from the furtive opening music to the growing impetus and excitement. He maintains tension in the middle section and right through to the coda. For those familiar with older interpretations, especially from Russian sources, the return of the work's opening theme could disappoint slightly, not quite bringing the sense of consummation of other accounts. It is perfectly clear enough, the LSO trombones sounding through the flag-waving celebratory texture around them, but might just lack the last degree of weight and presence. It will not trouble listeners who find such Shostakovich codas bombastic anyway, and is of a piece with Noseda’s conception, in playing down a little the most vivid rhetoric to reveal the music’s high integrity. It is a valid view. As the conductor wrote in the concert programme, “To record Shostakovich in the 1970’s and to record Shostakovich in 2019 is different, because the world is different, because we are different.”
Overall, this is a notable addition to his ongoing LSO Live cycle. I have heard several instalments now live and then on disc, and feel it could yet be the cycle for our era. It is recorded in pretty good surround-sound for a Barbican concert, with impact, accuracy and plenty of detail.
There are many rivals, from East and West. Mravinsky, Kondrashin, and Rozhdestvensky are close to its origins of course, and have the characteristic colours of their Russian orchestras. Of Western versions, Bernstein’s DG version from Chicago remains extraordinary, at times incandescent. It was chosen as the best in a recent BBC Radio 3 “Building a Library”, and reviewed for MusicWeb by Bob Briggs, whose conclusion was “Not so much a must-have as a can’t-live-without.” Bernstein, reluctantly answering a question about his favourite among his many recordings, himself described it as “more than a record”, and reflected that “something happened that day”. Above all else, it sounds as is if he totally believes in the piece - but Gianandrea Noseda has his own virtues, and he too brings a tremendous sense of strength and purpose to this once controversial work.