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Symphony No. 7 in C Major Op. 60,…
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Symphony No. 7 in C Major Op. 60, "Leningrad" [sound recording]

by Dmitri Shostakovich

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Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975)

Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 60 ‘Leningrad’


[1] Shostakovich broadcasts from besieged Leningrad in 1941 [0.41]

[2] I. Allegretto [26.24]
[3] II. Moderato (poco allegretto) [10.43]
[4] III. Adagio [15.41]
[5] IV. Allegro non troppo [16.40]

St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy


Recorded: 5/1995, Great Hall of the Philharmonia, St Petersburg.

Decca, 1997. 70.37. Liner notes by Ian MacDonald.

============================================

This is a surprisingly disappointing performance and recording. I’m not sure who’s to blame more, Ashkenazy or Decca, but I’m pretty sure neither is blameless.

The sound is far from Decca’s usual standards. It is distant and poorly balanced. With the possible exception of the horns and the percussions, none of the instruments are recorded very vividly. The strings are the worst: very thin and lacking in sonority. That famous Decca presence that transports you to the concert hall – it’s not here at all. As for Ashkenazy, he sleepwalks through the whole symphony much in the same way as he does through Tchaikovsky’s Manfred (Decca, 1977). The final result is an indifferent performance that hardly does justice to the work. It’s not unlistenable. But it’s certainly dull. Ashkenazy wakes up only in the very end, and then only to blast the timpani and the bass drum out of all proportion. The result of this intervention is a travesty.

Compared to Caetani (Arts Music, 2000) and Toscanini (RCA, 1942), this recording might as well not exist. The Shostakovich broadcast is a charming historical curiosity, but nothing special either. Shosti merely tells us, in a smooth and expressionless voice, that he has composed two movements of his new symphony, so life in besieged Leningrad is really perfectly normal. Soviet propaganda doesn’t get much better than that.

The booklet is handsomely done and does, of course, contain a transcript of the broadcast with translations. Much more interesting is one photo of Shosti as a volunteer fire-fighter, protective equipment, helmet and all, in July 1941. The essay by Ian MacDonald is an erudite discussion of the tangled issue with the Symphony’s program, including Shosti’s contradictory statements, all of which have come to us second-hand after his death. A good case can be made, Mr MacDonald argues, that the Symphony is a musical response as much against Hitler as against Stalin. That may be so, but that doesn’t tell us much, does it? I have a notion the Leningrad Symphony has become a victim of its program(s). A good deal of the inner movements, or of the outer sections of the first movement for that matter, is delicate, tender and even melting, hardly depicting Stalin, Hitler or WWII.

Anyway, even if the program case is solid, why take it so seriously? Music is the deepest and most expressive of all arts. Why put it in a straightjacket? The obsessive first movement can mean a good many things, and so can the apocalyptic finale. Only a person of very limited education, little experience of the world and no imagination at all would see nothing but Stalin, Hitler and WWII in Shosti’s Seventh. This is like seeing noting but country walks in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony or galloping horses in Liszt’s Mazeppa. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Jun 1, 2019 |
Arturo Toscanini Collection, Vol. 22

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975)

Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 60 “Leningrad”

[1] I. Allegretto [28:47]
[2] II. Moderato poco allegretto [10:38]
[3] III. Adagio [17:59]
[4] IV. Allegro non troppo [14:43]

NBC Symphony Orchestra
Arturo Toscanini


Live Recording: NBC broadcast of July 19, 1942, in Studio 8-H, New York City.

RCA Gold Seal, 1991. 72:19. Liner notes by John W. Freeman.

=================================

As usual when the Leningrad Symphony is discussed, historical background overrides musical achievement. When this performance is mentioned at all, it is because of the tug-of-war Toscanini and Stokowski had who should conduct the American premiere (for it was the first US performance of a brand new work) or the thrilling story how 250 pages of score and some 2,500 of orchestral parts were microfilmed and exported from Leningrad to the New World via Tehran and Cairo in a ruse worthy of James Bond. Toscanini received the score just ten days before the broadcast. That he memorized and conducted such a massive work on so short a notice is yet another proof of his awe-inspiring memory and musicianship. Then there are those people, keen on bringing irrelevant superficiality to new heights, who go for in-depth analysis of the controversial gossip what Toscanini and Shostakovich may have said. Reportedly, Toscanini initially described the score as “magnificent” but later thought he was crazy to have learned and conducted such “junk”. Shostakovich, on hearing the broadcast years later, reportedly pronounced it “worthless”, yet another source claims that when he was asked to name the best conductor of his works, he said “Toscanini”. Go figure![1]

All this is very interesting but – surprise! surprise! – not important at all. This is a tremendous performance in purely musical terms. That’s the important thing. Never one to do anything by halves, Toscanini makes the NBC Symphony play as if they were themselves besieged in Leningrad and their lives depended on the performance. If you doubt this, the hair-raising middle section of the third movement is all you need to hear. On the whole, as so often happens, Toscanini’s brisk pace and passionate commitment are full of revelations, adding an extra bite to the music often lost in modern recordings. Just listen to the passage right after the first climax in the finale. Admittedly, the very ending of the same movement is a little rushed, yet almost nothing of its grandeur is lost. The sound is fantastically clean and well-balanced for a broadcast from 1942. Except for the limited dynamics, the recording carries its 74 (!) years very well indeed.

Don’t make this your first recording of the Leningrad Symphony. But if you’re already familiar with the work and not afraid of “historical sound”, or if you admire Toscanini and want to hear him in a rather unusual repertoire, this is a must.

_______________________________________________
[1] For an excellent overview of the matter, see John Freeman’s liner notes and Mortimer H. Frank, Arturo Toscanini: The NBC Years, Amadeus Press, 2002, pp. 65-6. ( )
  Waldstein | Oct 12, 2016 |
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975)

Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 60 “Leningrad”

[1] I. Allegretto [25.52]
[2] II. Moderato (poco allegretto) [11.30]
[3] III. Adagio [18.33]
[4] IV. Allegro non troppo [17.37]

Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi
Oleg Caetani


Live Recording: 12/2000, Auditorium di Milano, Italy.

Arts Music, 2003. 73.35. Liner notes by Daniel Brandenburg and Oleg Caetani. 24bit/96kHz recording.

=================================

This is an absolutely stupendous recording. I first acquired it many years ago as a supplement to a musical magazine I had bought simply because I was vaguely interested in Shosti and his Seventh Symphony. I was blown away – almost literally – and later purchased the original edition. It remains one of my favourite takes on this mighty symphony. The cover is more appropriate to a Slayer album, but never mind that.

The sound is pretty impressive, to begin with. For once, phrases like “audiophile recording” and “unrivalled natural clarity and ambience” actually mean something. The dynamic range is enormous, yet all groups of instruments – strings, woodwinds, brass, percussions – come off clearly, indeed startlingly so, but without the balance being distorted in the process. The outer movements of the Leningrad Symphony contain some of the most massive orchestral climaxes ever composed by anybody, and it’s awfully easy to make a cacophonic mess of them. Many eminent conductors with great orchestras and state-of-the-art recording technology at their disposal have stumbled badly when they tried to do justice to Shosti’s longest and grandest symphony. Not so here.

Much of the credit must, of course, go to the man in the catbird seat. Oleg Caetani is son of no other but the great Ukrainian conductor Igor Markevitch (1912–1983), but he chose to use the name of his Italian mother, no doubt to avoid constant comparisons with his father, but perhaps also to preserve an ancient name with quite a lot of history behind it. Caetani holds together the Leningrad Symphony, that giant network of haunting delicacy and bacchanalian excess, with a masterful sense for steady pace and elegant phrasing. All 73 minutes of it flow as smoothly as they seldom do. In his liner notes (a rare thing for a conductor), signor Caetani shares some fascinating recollections and reflections that may explain, at least partly, his success as a Shostakovich conductor:

In the classes in Leningrad for conductors it was almost regarded as superfluous to study this symphony in more detail as it had become a hymn, a manifestation of the town itself. I therefore had to urge my teacher, Mussin, persistently to work through it with me. I knew well that he was in Leningrad at the beginning of the siege, and in particular I knew that he had conducted the third performance of the symphony.

By Mussin himself and many others, this symphony was regarded as propagandistic and not of the same quality level as the others. However, upon having to deal with it again together with me, he was surprised upon seeing and appreciating the less glorifying characteristics of the work in a new light, which addressed the more esoteric aspects of the town. In its salon-like elegance, the beginning of the second movement (which Shostakovich had initially called “Recollection”!), is reminiscent of the mannerisms of the salons described by Tolstoy and Lermontov. Later, the solo of the bass clarinet (one of the longest in the repertoire of this instrument) accompanied by a harp and flute thrills, evokes the night-time fog of St. Petersburg as described by Gogol and Dostojevski: its sacredness in chords and liturgy makes us dream of the monumental forms of the St. Isaac and Kazan cathedrals.

To me the fascination of this symphonic fresco is to be found in its ambiguity: on the one side the terror of war and the bravery of the St. Petersburg citizens, on the other side the description of the mysterious and merry soul of this beautiful town.


Whatever you like to take the Leningrad Symphony for, the horrors of Hitler in particular and war in general or the oppression of Stalin in particular and totalitarianism in general (or the mystery of St Petersburg, if you will), it is undeniably one of the most exciting musical works of the twentieth century. Masterpiece or not, that is for the listener to decide personally – for me, an undisputed masterpiece that has become victim of a scope-shrinking historical background – but at least one recording is sine qua non for the shelves of every fan of orchestral music. Caetani is more than worthy of standing beside heavyweights like Mravinsky, Rozhdestvensky, Toscanini and Bernstein. He is definitely superior, sonically as well as artistically, to the likes of Haitink, Ashkenazy and Gergiev. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Oct 10, 2016 |
The seventh symphony was one of Shostakovich’s most famous symphonies because of the circumstances that surrounded its composition. Some contemporary listeners (based on what I’ve read in the Shostakovich newsgroup) aren’t so keen on the music itself, but I quite like it.

It was mostly composed in Leningrad in 1941–2, when that city was under siege by the Germans during World War II. Its very composition and performance were hailed as a triumph of Soviet spirit in the face of terrible opposition. However, all is not necessarily as it seems (or, as the Soviet authorities wanted to see it). The symphony’s famous savagery (the march-theme in the first movement in particular, but in other places through-out the work) could just as easily be read as a depiction of the brutality of totalitarianism in general. Many now believe this to have been Shostakovich’s real intention.

The second movement of this symphony is one that particularly appeals to me. It starts out in quite a jaunty mood, with the strings playing quite a bouncy melody. However it quickly becomes rather melancholic with the entry of a solo oboe. It’s beautiful, sad and genuine. A little later a bassoon is heard, there is a brief bit of drama on the strings, and the oboe disappears. The strings play a pizzicato melody that doesn’t bode well and then suddenly the clarinets, sarky and interfering, latch onto what’s going on. They’re joined by the brass, and the flutes, and the whole tone of the movement has changed. Within just a short while, the tympani is pounding away and the whole thing is positively martial. This is not joyous music, but thrilling in a chilly, creepy sort of way. Eventually, the fit passes, and the first theme returns with a harp on top, but also with what I think is a bass clarinet murmuring underneath. It even gets to state the oboe’s theme once on its own, before the strings finish the movement. The original bounce is sort of there, but the rhythm is accentuated, and a little tenser.

"Meanwhile, in the first hot July days, I started on my Seventh Symphony, conceived as a musical embodiment of the supreme ideal of patriotic war. The work engrossed me completely. Neither the savage air-raids nor the grim atmosphere of a beleaguered city could hinder the flow of musical ideas. . . . I worked with an inhuman intensity. I continued to compose marches, songs, and film music, and attended to my organizational duties as chairman of the Leningrad Composers' Union, and then would return to my symphony as though I had never left it.

The first and longest movement bears a dramatic and (I would say) tragic character. [It] tells of the happy, peaceful life of a people confident in themselves and in their future. It is a simple life, such as was enjoyed by thousands of Leningrad's Popular Guards, by the whole city, by the whole country, before the war broke out. Then comes the War. I have made no attempt at naturalistic interpretation of the War by imitating booms of cannon, shell, explosions, etc. I tried to give an emotional image of the War. The reprise is a memorial march, or more correctly a requiem for the War's victims. Plain people pay tribute to the memory of their heroes. The requiem is followed by an even more tragic theme. I don't know how to describe it. Perhaps it is the tears of a mother, or even that feeling which comes when sorrow is so great that there are no more tears. These two lyrical fragments form the conclusion of the first part of the symphony. The closing chords resemble the din of distant battle, a reminder that the war continues.

The next two movements were intended as an intermezzo. They confirm life in opposition to war. I tried to express the thought that art, literature and science must advance in spite of war. It is, if you like, a polemic against the statement that "when the cannons roar the muse is silent."

The fourth movement is dedicated to our victory. It is an immediate continuation of the second and third movements, their logical outcome. It is the victory of light over darkness, wisdom over frenzy, lofty humanism over monstrous tyranny.

While I was working on this music, Leningrad was converted into an impregnable fortress. Fresh Popular Guard detachments were constantly being formed. The entire population learned the art of warfare, and it seemed that war had replaced all other affairs. I found, however, that that was not so, for one of my friends told me that all tickets for the Philharmonic concerts had been sold out. Indeed, at all these concerts I found the audience in high spirits and keenly responsive to our performance. My excitement at these concerts was something new, for I came to understand that music, like every art, is a genuine requirement of man.

On the whole I feel that the Seventh Symphony is an optimistic conception. As a composition it is closer to my Fifth Symphony than to my Sixth; it is a continuation of the emotions and mood of the Fifth Symphony". Shostakovich.
  antimuzak | Nov 17, 2007 |
Showing 4 of 4
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» Add other authors (10 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Shostakovich, Dmitriprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ashkenazy, Vladimirconductorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Caetani, Olegconductorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Freeman, John W.liner notessecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gergiev, ValeryConductorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Haitink, Bernardconductorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hupka, Robertphotographersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kirov Orchestrasecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kondrashin, Kirilconductorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
National Symphony OrchestraOrchestrasecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
NBC Symphony Orchestrasecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdisecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Petrenko, VasilyConductorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rostropovich, MstislavConductorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestrasecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Toscanini, Arturosecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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