SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad” – Mariinsky Orchestra/ Valery Gergiev – Mariinsky multichannel SACD MAR0533, 82:21 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
The story of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony is one that allows for some degree of amazement. In June 1941 the Nazis stormed into the city and cut the last remaining rail line, effectively isolating it and making it a city under siege, a condition that would last for three long years. One month after this occurrence the composer began writing his Seventh Symphony, a work that originally looked as though it would be one long movement, though practicality and common sense dictated that it be broken up. It is unrelentingly tragic, except for the last movement, but even the triumphs there seem ephemeral and almost an attempt to convince one against one’s own will. The opening movement sets the tone, featuring an “invasion” theme that is certainly one of the most banal ever composed, and presented in a set of martial variations that also competes for banality. The genius lies in the force behind this theme, that evil incarnate as was certainly experienced by the residents of Leningrad at that moment in history deserves no more than a simplistic, almost mockingly childish melody repulsive in its essence and yet highly communicative and absorbing in its ability to be made fun of.
But according to Shostakovich later in life, the invasion of Leningrad was only half the picture, if even that; in reality he used this opportunity for patriotic expression to tell a much different story, one of Stalin being the real destroyer of the city while Hitler was simply finishing it off. This bit of information allows us to penetrate below the surface of this obsessively caustic and at times bombastic—though certainly beloved in Russia—work of art. For the composer was portraying certain spiritual realities about a personage that in his opinion made the very ravages of war something secondary and even less destructive that battle itself.
In the midst of composition the same year as the invasion the composer was forced, against his will, to leave for Moscow for a time before he and his family finally rejoined his compatriots at Leningrad in fleeing the city. Finally in December the work was completed and given a performance, something that would be repeated in 1942 using the remaining living members of the Leningrad Orchestra augmented with others summoned even from the front for the occasion, touted to the hilt by the Great Leader. Microfilm was used to smuggle the score out of Russia where it fell into the hands of Toscanini, who premiered the work in the United States in 1942 with the NBC Symphony.
The Toscanini recording remains a classic example of that conductor’s art, and is well worth acquiring for historical as well as performance reasons. However, as fate has such things, it wasn’t for just any reason that Leonard Bernstein’s only appearance with the Chicago Symphony in 1988 resulted in what many regard—including me—definitive performances of the composer’s First and Seventh Symphonies on DGG. This new release in noticeably improved surround sound by Gergiev and forces does not change my mind about that—Bernstein’s reading is one where conductor and orchestra merged into a single entity of sublime forcefulness and passion—but Gergiev’s somewhat quicker tempos in three movements add a little propulsion to a work that can suffer greatly from slackness in the hands of conductors other than Bernstein. I am especially taken with the tragic and yet moving third movement Adagio, where the strings are particularly affecting. The brass as usual are well-balanced and finely-honed, while the interpretation in general seems to be the equal of just about any other recording I have ever heard aside from Bernstein, which does stand out. But as a second recording this one will serve very nicely, even as a reminder that there are other ways to hear this piece, even if they aren’t quite as convincing!