SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 60 “Leningrad” – NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
Opus Kura OPK 7050, 72:15 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
Opus Kura restores the 19 July 1942 radio premier broadcast of the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony by the NBC Symphony and Arturo Toscanini, a cause celebre in its own time. Both a piece of political propaganda and a dark testament to Shostakovich’s ongoing personal turmoil with variations on totalitarianism from within and without, the "Leningrad Symphony" celebrates the courage of a city under siege. Leopold Stokowski earnestly sought to deliver the American premier of this massive work, but Arturo Toscanini intervened on his own behalf–given his own anti-fascist proclivities–and a compromise declared that Toscanini would debut the radio performance while Stokowski would introduce the work in concert. Opus Kura takes this remastering from a distinctly different source than the commercial RCA inscription.
After the opening martial statement in strings and woodwinds in ominous counterpoint, flute and low strings offer an extended conciliatory and bucolic episode; but the so-called ostinato “invasion” theme–in twenty-two bars that suffuses the entire sonata-form structure–will repeat twelve times, a weird crescendo introduced by snare drum and pizzicato strings, similar to Ravel’s Bolero or a dark, inverse reminder of Beethoven’s Ninth. Despite the innate rigidity and emotional blandness of the motive, Toscanini infuses a decidedly feral energy into its progression, a mindless efficiency of military might and wanton destruction. Some twenty minutes into this tormented movement, a post-apocalyptic serenity falls, led by flute, pizzicato strings, and bassoon – another mournful nostalgically funereal vista of the wasteland that was once home.
Shostakovich originally entitled the second movement Memories and conceives the relatively brief Poco allegretto as an interlude-intermezzo in the form of a scherzo. The music projects a hazy Spanish rhythm in the strings, while oboe and bass clarinet provide an attempt at reviving song. Melancholy and cruelty seem to dominate the affect of this movement. Plucked strings invoke a balalaika motif, but the raucous woodwinds–in the spirit of Shostakovich’s idol, Mahler–invest a note of caustic irony and dissolution. The new militancy continues, and having exhausted itself, the music returns to the grim smile of the opening passages. Wonderful deep woodwind, contrabassoon, and muted trumpet effects from Toscanini’s NBC players take us to the resigned coda. The strident opening of the Adagio takes its cue from Stravinsky, although the treatment has a touch of Bach’s counterpoint. Both chorale and dirge, the movement invokes what Shostakovich called “Our Country’s Wide Spaces.” The flute carries some hope, but every plucked note threatens military action. The music becomes a dramatic scene, almost operatic, with Russia wringing her hands in anticipation for a hobnailed deliverer. Indeed, an almost romantic interlude ensues, a recollection of love in the midst of the wasteland. Toscanini’s strings usher in an anguished theme that could apply to a concerto grosso or balletic scene from Prokofiev, more likely one of Shostakovich’s mournful string quartets.
Attacca, we find ourselves in the throes of the last movement, Allegro non troppo. The opening mood of high-strung expectation of “Victory”–however hollow–breaks out into frantic spasms from strings, woodwinds, and brass, a virtuoso effort from the NBC choirs. The highly accented syncopated counter-theme in the strings utters a huge sigh, since Hitler merely finishes the horrid work Stalin had already begun. The sense of hymnody in the latter pages reflects the composer’s enchantment with Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and his own conviction that a terrible Divine judgment had befallen Russia, particularly upon her leadership. The music moves to convulsive C Major, but it is no affirmation like we find in Beethoven. Toscanini has bestowed upon this colossal score a terrific urgency, but for all of his efforts, Shostakovich did not appreciate this performance.
— Gary Lemco