September 1998

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7 in C, "Leningrad," Op.60.
Russian State Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Valeri Polyansky
Chandos CHAN 9621
Released: 1998

by Deryk Barker

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

[Reviewed on CD]A little while ago I was at an all-Shostakovich concert given by the Lafayette String Quartet. At the end of the harrowing Eighth Quartet, the poet (and Shostakovich fanatic) Doug Beardsley turned to me and said "It's the music of our time." And this remark kept recurring to me as I listened to this new version of Shostakovich's most controversial symphony.

Apart from the propagandist 2nd, 3rd and 12th, no symphony by Shostakovich has a poorer reputation today than the 7th. The symphony was composed during the bleakest days of "the great patriotic war," as the Russians still refer to World War II; it was begun, in fact, during the Siege of Leningrad, which lasted from September 1941 to February 1943, during which period an estimated 1,000,000 inhabitants of the city died. There is a famous photograph taken during the siege of Shostakovich in his volunteer fire-fighter's helmet. Reluctantly, however, he was evacuated in late September 1941 to Moscow, where he composed the last two movements.

The symphony was premiered in Kuibyshev on March 5, 1942 and given in Moscow on March 29. But before the Leningrad premiere, on August 9, 1942, the symphony had already been performed twice in the West. Leopold Stokowski persuaded NBC to purchase the rights to the symphony; the story of the microfilmed score's journey by air and road via Teheran and Cairo would doubtless be worthy of a movie. However, the first Western performance was given, not in the USA, but by Sir Henry Wood in London on June 29, 1942 -- a fact which is often overlooked in the light of what was to transpire in the USA. Arturo Toscanini had gotten wind of the music's impending arrival and decided that what must be one of the most important American premieres of the time should be his prerogative. Such, alas, was his influence at NBC that he won the day. He also wrote a rather condescending letter to Stokowski, saying that it seemed appropriate for "an old Italian conductor" to play the work of "a young Russian anti-Nazi composer."

The US premiere was broadcast and heard by millions -- although Toscanini later wondered why he had bothered with the work. The symphony was performed over 60 times in the following year in the US alone. (Stokie finally got to perform it in December 1942.)

Not everybody was won over by the music though, particularly the (in)famous "invasion" sequence, in which an ostinato figure is repeated over and over with ever more complex and menacing orchestration. The English critic Ernest Newman famously wrote that in the future a Shostakovich symphony's geographic position would be measured as "so many degrees of longitude and platitude." Bartok, allegedly bitter at the recognition the younger composer was receiving while he starved, parodied the "invasion" in his Concerto for Orchestra.

After the war, the symphony lost its popularity in the West, although not in the Soviet Union, where Shostakovich also had to face the envy of a number of his fellow composers. Then the revisionist views began to appear: The invasion sequence was not a portrait of the invading Nazi war machine, but of Stalin's purges of the 1930s, and so on. Yet although these seemed to allow for a slight resurgence in the symphony's popularity, the fact remains that it is still generally regarded as his weakest mature symphony (with the exception of the programmatic 12th, "The Year 1917"). This new recording -- the first post-Soviet account of the work to reach my ears -- may well signal that the time has arrived for a considered re-evaluation of the work.

And this is where Doug's remark seems so relevant: the music of our time. For where the exuberant, almost manic, but ultimately life-affirming music of Mahler was appropriately "discovered" during the 1960s, it may be that as we approach the end of the century, Shostakovich's tempered optimism is the apt reaction to the horrors mankind has visited upon itself, from the death camps of the Third Reich to the death squads of the third world. All of which, I humbly submit, can be heard in this magnificent new recording by Valeri Polyansky and the Russian State SO. (They are apparently working their way through the complete cycle, but this is the first of the set to come my way) Polyansky has a firm grip upon the structure of the work; I have rarely heard such a consistently realized performance of every movement.

For starters, Polyansky deals superbly with the First Movement "invasion." Where other conductors frequently seem carried away with the sheer physicality of the sound, Polyanski molds the sequence meticulously. I don't recall ever hearing the side-drum part so meticulously played, for example. Indeed, the entire passage is all the more menacing for its total control; here is the sound of faceless, remorseless, indifferent evil, of the uncaring hand that signs the execution order. But that passage, some 11 minutes out of the total, never assumes a significance out of proportion to its place within the symphony. All too often the invasion is followed by almost an hour of anticlimax; that is not the case here.

The odd, melancholy scherzo, with its turbulent trio, which follows is full of nostalgia, and the magnificent adagio revealed as one of Shostakovich's deepest, most searching slow movements. The moderato risoluto episode is all heroic power, with superbly optimistic brass.

As with many another Shostakovich symphony, the finale is -- or should be -- underlain with ambiguity. For Shostakovich there are no easy solutions, no easy way to shrug aside the inhumanity of mankind and convince oneself that "all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds." And the grinding brass chords counterposed against the triumphant strings and winds in the closing pages leave the listener with no illusions that Shostakovich's optimism is an untrammeled one.

This is a tremendously exciting, penetrating and well-played performance; the Russian State SO is a fine band, capable of playing with great finesse but also, when necessary, capable of and willing to give the music that "edge" which we associate with the old Soviet orchestras.

The recording itself is very fine: clean and detailed with a real sense of space around the instruments. The dynamic range, of course, is huge. I'd not attempt playing this in the car, for example. Turn it up far enough to here the pitter-patter of the side-drum at the opening of the invasion and I guarantee you'll be deafened 10 minutes later.

"Even today," writes Solomon Volkov in Testimony, the "memoirs" (but let's not get into that now) of Shostakovich, "the political resonance of the Seventh interferes with a proper evaluation of its musical status." Perhaps, finally, that evaluation can begin.