SHOSTAKOVICH: Leningrad Symphony – NBC Symphony Orchestra/ Leopold Stokowski – Pristine 

by | Apr 15, 2018 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews

Pristine well restores the historical context for the Stokowski 1942 broadcast of the Shostakovich 7th Symphony.

SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 70 “Leningrad” – NBC Symphony Orchestra/ Leopold Stokowski – Pristine Audio PASC 527, 79:34 [] ****:

The live-concert Stokowski performance (13 December 1942) from New York’s  Carnegie Hall of the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony has had prior incarnation on both Pearl (Gemm CDS 9044) and Music&Arts (CD-1232).  Stokowski had convinced NBC in December 1941 to buy the rights to the latest Shostakovich symphony, that was composed in response to the Nazi siege of Leningrad; and so, by circuitous routes and microfilm and flights from Europe, the score arrived in New York City. Arturo Toscanini, however, prevailed upon NBC executive David Sarnoff that, as the former, sole musical director of the NBC Symphony, he, Toscanini should give the American premiere, which Toscanini did 19 July 1942.  The Pearl edition of this Stokowski performance had the benefit of Ward Marston’s editing, while the Music&Arts version received audio restoration by Kit Higginson. The present edition for Pristine enjoys the XR remastering supervised by Andrew Rose.

Shostakovich had begun to sketch his C Major Symphony before the siege of Leningrad, and he commented that the music described the city “Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off.” Shostakovich felt he had come back to life with the Seventh Symphony, and that the war years actually proved conducive for the arts in Russia. People in their common sorrow for and resistance to Nazi invasion began to speak to each other and to trust each other, an atmosphere that had been impossible when Stalin’s hegemony remained undisputed. The siege would last 900 days and cause the deaths of nearly one million lives, which included extreme cases of starvation, to the point of cannibalism. When word reached the Soviet authorities that Shostakovich had conceived a symphony of resistance to oppressors and a paean to heroism, they removed Shostakovich to the relatively secure town of Kuibyshev, where Shostakovich finished his last movement, the whole work’s having been conceived and scored in six months.

The opening Allegretto movement—bucolic and lyrical for its first six minutes—establishes a “requiem for fallen heroes,” the dramatic contrast between an agrarian, secure people and the militaristic and mechanized incursion of an oppressive enemy, marked in string pizzicato, blaring trumpets and grueling snare and tympani. Shostakovich offers only a solo, nostalgic flute solo to counter the onrush of crushing energies. A people’s interior will must resist a world menace. Similar to Ravel’s dynamic procedure in Bolero, the onslaught gains volume and agonized intensity. Repetitive and mentally stultifying, the ensuing battle lasts a quarter of an hour. The apocalypse climaxes and eventually subsides, having  left in its wake devastation and wringing images of atrocity and despair.  The NBC bassoon (Leonard Sharrow) presides over of wasteland, winnowing bitter memories amidst the ruins.  The rhythmic bass hints at the sad Allegretto from the Beethoven Seventh, the horns and tuba perhaps serving as a condensed requiem.  The militant obsession returns, a reminder that human evil does not disappear without a heavy price.

Dmitri Shostakovich

The second movement Moderato (poco allegretto) bears the subtitle “Memories.”  A hesitant, melancholy dance proceeds in canon, the syntax—as the clarinet and low strings converge—well reminiscent of Mahler. Pizzicato figures do not lighten the mood. The clarinet becomes volatile and demented. A kind of musical eddy whirls before us, as chaotic as the world has become. The NBC battery contributes to the emotional melee, a mixture of bitterness and grim acceptance. The harps enter the sonority but afford little consolation, the winds’ flutter-tonguing merely accentuating the irony against the low bass clarinet. Stokowski allows his strings the portamento we associate with the defunct Romantic style, especially that of Mahler’s Vienna and Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday.

The grim Adagio opens with stringent pain, the scalar line almost a parody of the Second Romanian Rhapsody of Enescu. The woodwinds provide no comfort, and the “warm” string line sets us up for a funeral oration. A solo flute emerges out of the desolation against plucked strings.  The melody captures us as well as any in Bizet, but the effect proves so haunted we can only weep. The violas respond with a sense of renewed courage, espressivo, and I think of Walter Huston’s resolve in the anti-Nazi film, The North Star.  The passionate music erupts into a fierce, arioso declaration—derived from the solo flute melody—for the power of music itself as a source of emotional resilience. The scoring with snares and multiple, layered voices seems to have taken a page form the “battle with the critics” from Ein Heledenleben.  It becomes tempting to interpret the movement as pointing to “the light at the end of the tunnel.” The militaristic spirit’s not withstanding, the music here has managed a sweetly agonized chorale that marks one of the true highlights of this otherwise “political program music.”

The last movement, Allegro non troppo, begins once more with dire forebodings, especially the sense that human evil will not disappear, no matter how loud the C Major proclamations at the symphony’s conclusion. The Manichean struggle erupts once more, the rhythmic ministrations contentious well in the manner of Mahler and the Russian composer’s own Fifth Symphony. The horns, winds, and tympani and battery ride the Four Horses of the Apocalypse. The distinction between triumph and tragedy seems pointless.  The scalar pattern appears to mock La Folia and descend into the nether regions.  Winds and solo flute offer weak consolations, but the low strings reject the palm.  The sense of “the Good Earth,” the appeal to “Mother Russia,” may provide solace. Shostakovich inserts the side drum at the very moment when the full orchestra announces the first theme in the tonic major, juxtaposing once more that awful ambiguity of human nature.

The Pristine edition adds a bonus track: a seven-minute Radio Introductory Commentary Ben Grauer shares the microphone with Samuel Chotzinoff.  “Music and guns speak together in this symphony.”  Few great composers have done their best works under wartime conditions, excepting perhaps Beethoven in Vienna during Napoleon’s bombardment. Chotzinoff provides the biographical events of Shostakovich’s wartime service, 1941-1942. He assigns to the Leningrad Symphony credit for having given the world a life of optimism and encouragement. But will the music outlive its historical context?

—Gary Lemco


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