Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 60 ‘Leningrad’
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Kurt Masur
The 35-year-old Shostakovich began writing his seventh symphony in July 1941 shortly after the Nazi invasion of Russia. By the time that he started work on the second movement Hitler’s soldiers had arrived at the gates of Leningrad where they laid siege. Once the symphony was completed a most remarkable performance took place took place in Leningrad whilst the city was still under siege and only fourteen members of the Radio Orchestra were still alive. To mount a performance of this monumental work they had to enlist the help of any soldier who could play an instrument! The concert was broadcast live on the radio and served to inspire the populace to continue their defiance of the Nazis.
The monumental first movement immediately sets up the conflict that will remain throughout this symphony. The strength, freedom and individuality of the strings, representing the Soviet people, pitted against the brutal, machine-like rhythms of the trumpets and timpani – their enemies. A flute solo briefly invites us into a dreamlike atmosphere of peace and calm giving a sense of how things were before the menacing invasion. The march and battle that ensue are unrelenting. This movement contains perhaps the most extraordinary fifteen minutes of symphonic music ever written, agony is relentlessly piled upon agony. Just when you think it has to end, Shostakovich introduces another onslaught. But this music is meant to be repetitive and painful.
This is not the place for a full analysis of the symphony but the above should serve to put the work and review into context for those readers who are not familiar with this work.
This recording comes from a performance given by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the late Kurt Masur, in December 2003 at the Southbank Centre, Royal Festival Hall, when he was the orchestra’s Principle Conductor.
There can be no doubting how successful Shostakovich was in depicting the sheer awfulness of the situation in Leningrad and the need to maintain an optimistic outlook but the inherent banality and bombast within this this symphony, in the wrong hands, can make it seem insufferable. To my mind, Masur’s approach is altogether too musical. The large, menacing first movement is delivered in under twenty-five minutes compared to Bernstein, in my recording of choice, who takes over half an hour and portrays the sheer awfulness of the situation in a performance of overwhelming emotional power.
Some readers will enjoy this performance far more than me as it is a very careful and precise performance from the LPO with Masur in which great attention is paid to detail. The LPO perform well and the symphony has been captured in good quality sound¹. It appears that Masur had split the large brass section in two, unless my ears deceive, and I found that to be an interesting and effective choice. So, in essence, a very musical and pleasing performance but not one that hit me in the way I feel that this work should.
Much as I appreciate this symphony, it has inherent weaknesses (by Shostakovich’s high standards) but these somehow disappear in the best of performances. Unfortunately for me they were all too apparent in this recording and I found it rather underwhelming (in emotional impact not volume). Thus, I invite you, the reader, to sample alternatives for yourself. Compare this performance with those from Leonard Bernstein with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Mariss Jansons with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra or Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (at bargain price).
There is much to admire in this performance but in the final analysis it doesn’t quite hit the mark in a crowded market place.
¹ This is no mean feat for a work requiring such a large orchestra that includes eight horns, six trombones, two harps, a piano, three side drums and a full complement of other percussion instruments!