Kirov and Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestras (Gergiev) – ‘Shostakovich: Symphony No.7 ‘Leningrad’’ An SACD review by Mark Jordan

The nature of sound being what it is, combining two orchestras together does not make the music twice as loud, but what it does do is give an amazing depth and richness to the music. This recent Philips release brings us a live recording of Valery Gergiev conducting the two orchestras he is most associated with: The Kirov Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. The concert was recorded in the Dutch orchestra’s home hall, De doelen in Rotterdam, and it sounds very impressive indeed in the multi-channel mix of this super audio compact disc.

It is good to see Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad Symphony’ gaining respect over the years. Initially, too much was made of the programmatic aspects of the symphony, thus tying it a little too specifically to the historical events surrounding its creation. It was long thought that the “invasion theme” which dominates the development of the first movement was a portrayal of the Nazi invasion and siege of Leningrad in the early years of World Way II. Rumors began to circulate years later that Shostakovich had in fact portrayed the destruction of Russia under the hand of a different tyrant in this music, namely, Joseph Stalin. A simple analysis of the music gives the answer about the “meaning” of the invasion theme: The theme is built out of fragments of the main themes of the movement. If the main themes are taken to represent Shostakovich’s beloved homeland and home city, then it is clear that the destructive force portrayed in the development comes from within Russia itself. But what Shostakovich builds in the invasion theme includes a section that mockingly quotes a banal tune from Lehar’s ‘The Merry Widow, which was a wildly successful musical in Germany in the early 1900’s. Thus the musical evidence indicates that Shostakovich was portraying the Russian monsters and German monsters as being interchangeable, a common enemy to freedom. But quite regardless of these programmatic considerations, the music itself is tightly knit and almost classical in structure. Granted, this symphony does not match the same composer’s ‘Eighth’ or the ‘Tenth’ in impact, nor does it even approach the late symphonies in depth nor darkness, but it is a worthy piece, and Valery Gergiev treats it so.

Gergiev has become one of the foremost conductors in the world on the strength of his passionate commitment. Polish is not his primary concern, though indeed there is plenty on display here where needed. Nor is Gergiev the conservative sort preferring to step back and limn the architecture of the work, like Rudolf Barshai in his excellent 1992 recording with the West German Radio Symphony now available in a super-bargain box set of the complete Shostakovich symphonies on Brilliant Classics. Gergiev is closer to Barshai’s polar opposite, Leonard Bernstein, who recorded this piece twice with great flair. Bernstein’s earlier recording is closer to the standard approach, but is let down in places by tentative playing from the New York Philharmonic. Amazing to think that in less than half a century, we have gotten to the point where regional orchestras such as Barshai’s play better than some of the major orchestras did in the 1960’s. But Bernstein also revisited the work in an intense, epic performance with the Chicago Symphony in 1988, recorded by Deutsche Grammophon. It is a towering, grim performance that currently stands as the king of the Shostakovich ‘Seventh’ catalogue. Gergiev’s recording stands up proudly on its own terms, and even surpasses the Bernstein in terms of recorded sound, making it a very welcome issue on SACD.

Comparing the CD layer of Gergiev’s hybrid disc directly to the Bernstein finds it only marginally better, with at least some of the rich texture of sound coming presumably from the combination of two large orchestras and not from the engineering itself. But on the SACD layers, the sound becomes more colorful and lifelike, capturing instrumental timbres both in normal and extreme ranges very effectively. The biggest leap in quality on this disc is in moving from the stereo SACD layer to the multi-channel layer. Amazingly enough, I could not actually pick up the sound of the rear ambient channels from my seat when I first listened to this recording, but when I changed over to the stereo SACD layer, the difference was startling. Kudos to the producer and engineers for achieving such a subtle mix – the rear channels never obtrude with excessive bounce-back, but take them away and their loss pales the whole spectrum of orchestral sound. The perspective is from just a little in front of the center of the auditorium. Being a fan of more close up sound, I wouldn’t have minded for the focus to be a shade closer to the stage, but the current perspective here allows for a tremendous dynamic range.

Certainly the earlier recordings made of this work such as Mravinsky, Ancerl, and the first Bernstein were technologically unable to handle the volume of sound that Shostakovich calls for in the peaks of this work. Digital recordings such as the second Bernstein, and Barshai’s have made a better job of it, and the high-resolution technology skillfully applied here matches them in power while surpassing them in depth and richness of sound. Perhaps it is that latter feature which is the most valuable here. Though the climaxes are frightening in their intensity, it is the quiet, introspective parts of the score which seem to benefit most – dolefully woody bass clarinet lines toward the end of the second movement, the silvery shine of the flute and violin solos in the first movement, and most of all, the strings digging deep into the lyrical parts of the slow movement. The recording captures both the sinewy intensity of string playing that is Gergiev’s trademark and a creamy depth of sound achieved by combining the conductor’s two orchestras. But that is not to understate the drama of crisp brass attacks and the raspy burr of the low trombones in the first and last movements. Indeed, the trumpet sforzando/crescendos in the first movement are so knife-sharp you may find yourself involuntarily flinching as they flash out of the speakers.

Barshai keeps steady, moderate tempos throughout the work, helping the listener keep track of where the overall symphonic argument is going. But I’m not sure that such “efficiency” is ideal. After all, an educated listener who knows where the piece is going is better equipped to follow a more adventurous conductor, which Gergieve certainly is. Gergiev averages out with timings similar to Barshai in the first and third movements, but he tends to play more with extremes. Gergiev’s main tempo in both movements is broader than average, but the central dramatic episodes are faster than usual. By comparison, Bernstein’s second recording is epic all the way throughout these movements, refusing to hurry and controlling the tension with an unyielding hand. Gergiev instead plays to the more momentary extremes of mood, even accelerating into the climax of the first movement. In the hands of a lesser conductor, the structure might fall apart, but Gergiev keeps things moving by sheer willpower, and indeed, I would venture to say that his playing of the extremes in the slow movement gives this movement a weight and range unsurpassed by any other performance. In the quasi-scherzo second movement, Gergiev is attentive to the composer’s “moderato” marking, making him a little closer to Bernstein’s shell-shocked portrayal than Barshai’s smooth, slightly mocking rendition. The finale is the one movement in which I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by Gergiev’s performance. He chooses a very broad tempo, slower than either Bernstein performance, and the movement never seems to build up a full head of steam. But on the other hand, this may be a programmatic leaning on Gergiev’s part. After all, the “victory” achieved in this movement is ambivalent at best. Though the siege of Leningrad eventually ended, and the Nazis retreated, Stalin was still in power. Perhaps that is why the return of the “Russian” theme from the first movement at the end makes for such an uneasy sense of triumph. With that in mind, Gergiev’s glacial tempo may be meant to emphasize the lack of true victory here. In those terms, it may indeed prove in time to become the ideal approach to the finale, but it will take some getting used to. Whatever the case, the closing pages surely pack quite a wallop, a grim triumph similar to the closing of Shostakovich’s ‘Fifth’. Probing performance and impressive sound. Recommended.