Symphony No.7 in C, Op.60 (Leningrad)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley
Reviewed: 20 April, 2016
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
Written during the Battle of Leningrad in World War Two, Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony was an instant success. It offered hope in the midst of Nazi devastation and “[presented] the spirit and essence of those terrible events” that his compatriots endured. Yet the critics castigated the work as cinematographic, excessively repetitious and with lame thematic material. Much of the negative criticism focuses upon the lengthy march that replaces the usual development section in the first movement, its banal theme (purportedly a swipe at Lehár’s The Merry Widow, a favorite of Hitler’s) repeating more than a dozen times. The other three movements readily withstand criticism. A Scherzo, with a mocking dance-like Trio, a deeply moving Adagio, and a resounding Finale are all well-conceived and skillfully crafted.
The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Mariss Jansons gave a full-bodied, resilient and incisive performance. Exquisite woodwind solos graced the first three movements and special kudos goes to the superb brass section. Jansons’s reading was energetic, sometimes impulsive, with abruptly shifting tempos. The opening theme fulfilled the “happy life of the people, their self-assurance and security in the future”, its strong-willed character contrasting with the languorous second theme, beautifully played by the violins. The march’s incessant build-up of tension reached the limits of endurance until the music finally exploded at a deafening volume.
The Scherzo was infused with impishness, Jansons brusquely pressing the tempo forward when the E-flat clarinet blurted out its raucous tune. Much of what followed seemed stressed, furiously intent on reaching a goal that was not attained. Although the third movement is marked Adagio, its metronome marking (crochet=112) far exceeds its boundaries. Jansons opted for Shostakovich’s directions, resulting in the virtual absence of a slow movement, yet Jansons was still able to evoke a sense of loss mingling with nostalgic reveries that gives way to the heartbreak that resounded forcefully during the dramatic middle section.
Anticipation of ultimate victory is implicit from the opening strains of the Finale. Long strokes in the strings slash out bravely against the foe, propelling the music urgently forward. The brass carried the rising tide to its dynamic highpoint, the theme of triumph punctuated with trumpet tattoos and intensified by galloping rhythms. Following a glorious peroration, the Symphony’s opening theme returns exultantly. Jansons suddenly picked up the pace for a few measures before returning to the main tempo for a shattering conclusion. In the final bars of this dynamic and brilliantly played account, the timpani, as if with clenched fists instead of sticks, forcefully pounded out a warning to tyrants everywhere: “We will endure and conquer!”.