Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 7
Valery Gergiev, cond; Mariinsky O
MARIINSKY 0533 (SACD: 82:23)
The benchmark recorded performances of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony are by Leonard Bernstein conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon) and the New York Philharmonic (Columbia). Bernstein understood Shostakovich’s massive symphony with all of its undertones as well as he understood Mahler’s symphonies, and knew exactly how to deal with its excesses, be they perceived or real. A conductor must trust the
composer and understand what he was trying to say (not always easy with Shostakovich). If you underplay a work like the “Leningrad” Symphony, it will become a colossal bore.
Valery Gergiev would seem to be the ideal conductor for the “Leningrad” Symphony. He is a very dynamic conductor (much more so live than on recordings), and like Bernstein, Gergiev is a showman. He is also Russian, but that does not necessarily guarantee a great performance of this work, or any other Russian music (Mikhail Pletnev’s erratic Tchaikovsky symphonies come to mind).
Gergiev plays the principal opening theme with a well-chosen middle of the road tempo, but there is a curious lack of urgency. The emphasis is on smooth legato flow. He never permits the strings to really dig in. The solo violin just before the appearance of the snare drum is hauntingly beautiful, as is his almost Bernstein-like slow reprise of the main theme toward the end of the first movement. The notorious middle section is taken at a fast tempo driven by an outstanding snare drummer brilliantly captured by the engineer. The swift tempo does not generate an overwhelming sense of menace, and Gergiev plays down the dissonances at the climax.
The second movement is quite slow and laid back, but Gergiev snaps out of it in the militaristic central climax. The various woodwind solos are excellent. The chilly opening string-wind chords set a dark, almost bleak tone for the entire third movement. The quiet transition to the fourth movement is well done. So, is Gergiev saving his fire for the finale? To a certain extent, the answer is yes. He generates plenty of energy in the central section, and the spectral images before the conclusion are also chilling. The finale itself, as with Bernstein, is fairly expansive but hardly triumphant with the crushing weight of the pounding timpani having the final word.
Sonically, this is probably the best available recording of the “Leningrad” Symphony. The emphasis is on clarity and inner detail that is never compromised, even in the massive climaxes. The huge dynamic range makes many of the work’s pianissimos nearly inaudible at volume levels designed to make the climaxes listenable. The finale sounds quite sensational with no smearing of individual instruments or collapse of the soundstage.
This is a very worthy recording of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony with excellent sound. I was surprised by Gergiev’s approach. He is a dynamic and flamboyant conductor in live concerts, but he has a history of making relatively dull recordings, in contrast to Bernstein, who never fails to transmit his sizzling artistic temperament in live concerts or recordings. In this performance, Gergiev succeeds in maintaining intensity without overdoing the bombast. The best recordings in modern sound are by Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca) and Yuri Temirkanov (RCA), both conducting the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra.
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