Among the twentieth century symphony, there can hardly be found a more widely-known entry into the genre than Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 60 (1939-41), better known as the Leningrad Symphony. While strikingly effective on a musical level, the symphony’s legendary status ows to the circumstances it was written, giving rise to its status as a defiant sonic opposition to fascist oppression, further enhanced by its famous performance in the besieged Leningrad on 9 August 1942.
However, as the composer himself noted in Testimony, the memoirs as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov, first published in 1979, the Leningrad Symphony had a more deeply-rooted genesis than it is often accounted for.
”The Seventh Symphony had been planned before the war and consequently, it simply cannot be seen as a reaction to Hitler’s attack. The ’invasion theme’ has nothing to do with the attack. I was thinking of other enemies of humanity when I composed the theme.
Naturally, fascism is repugnant to me, but not only German fascism, any form of it is repugnant. Nowadays, people like to recall the pre-war years as an idyllic time, saying that everything was fine until Hitler bothered us. Hitler is a criminal, that’s clear, but so is Stalin. I feel eternal pain for those who were killed by Hitler, but I feel no less pain for those killed on Stalin’s orders. I suffer for everyone who was tortured, shot, or starved to death. There were millions of them in our country before the war with Hitler began.
Actually, I have nothing against calling the Seventh the Leningrad Symphony, but it is not about Leningrad under siege, it’s about Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off.”
With the composer’s musings in mind, putting on the new SACD recording of the Seventh Symphony by the London Symphony Orchestra and their Principal Guest Conductor Gianandrea Noseda for the first time only days after Vladimir Putin’s despicable and fundamentally unfounded attack against the sovereignty of Ukraine, its elected government and its people, provides their intensely committed performance with sounding board of unusual poignancy and connectivity.
According to Shostakovich’s own account, as documented by Volkov, the compositional process of the Seventh Symphony, begun in 1939, eventually took an unexpected turn.
”I do write quickly, it’s true, but I think about my music for a comparatively long time, and until it’s complete in my head, I don’t begin setting it down. Of course, I do make mistakes. I might imagine that the composition will have one movement, and then I see it must be continued. That happened with the Seventh, as a matter of fact[.]”
The initial one-movement blueprint for the Seventh Symphony remains tangible within the eventual four-movement design, as manifested by the extended arch of the Allegretto first movement. Subdivided into clear-cut sections, the opening movement forms the almost self-sufficient gravitational centre for the symphony, to which the three remaining movements add contemplation and commentary. It is very much up to the performers, whether or not the symphony comes off as an unified entity. In this respect, few ensembles have come up with such a convincing statement as the LSO under Noseda.
The symphony is augured with a majestic opening theme, introduced by full strings and answered by brass and percussion. Joined by woodwinds, the thematic material is developed by full orchestra, before the music segues into its more lyrical, contemplative second subject on flutes and lower strings. Six minutes into the movement, a distant rumour of a rhythmic pattern is heard, laid out by snare drum. From here opens a sequence of menacing repetition, based on a composite theme, derived from Franz Léhar’s The Merry Widow (1905) in one hand and from Shostakovich’s own Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1930-34) in the other.
Conceived in the manner of Maurice Ravel’s Bolero (1928), only without its seductive intoxication, with input from the machine music of Prokofiev and the composers of Soviet futurism, such as Alexader Moslov, the central section mounts to strikingly off-putting tableau of malevolence.For Shostakovich, the ever-loudening reiterations are there to represent obliteration, stripped-down sonic machinery devoid of all humanity.
The section culminates in near-chaos, as the music is derailed into mere sonic mass, before fading away. The opening music resumes, transformed into impassioned lament and sublime memorial, clad in pale rays of light, evaporating into darkness, followed by one last echo of the central theme on solo trumpet, accompanied by keyboard and percussion.
In the course of its twenty-seven-minute arch, Noseda and the LSO take their listeners on a shattering musical journey into the movement’s symphonic devastation, summoning musical darkness which is not mere absence of light, but an entity its own. Contrasted by elegiac beauty and harrowing yearning for what is lost, the Allegretto is served with a terrific outing.
There are vast instrumental forces at play in the Seventh Symphony; triple winds doubling piccolo, cor anglais, e-flat clarinet, bass clarinet and double bassoon, eight horns, six trumpets, six trombones and tuba, large percussion section with piano, two harps and full string ensemble.
Ever marvellously balanced by Noseda, the expanded line-up of the LSO is caught on disc with pin-point accuracy and admirable spaciousness by the LSO Live team, giving rise to a high-resolution digital master of sonic fortitude and finesse, well transformed into the SACD hybrid format.
The second movement, an eleven-minute Moderato (poco allegretto) is conceived as a scherzo, albeit a somewhat unusual one. Following on opening of sublime agility for strings, woodwinds enter, in elegiac manner, with dark undercurrents, paving the way for sardonic middle section, with prominent parts for xylophone, tambourine and brass. An intense workout for full orchestra ensues, before the movement harks back to its introverted opening textures, with desolate passages for winds, harp and strings.
With Noseda at the helm, the LSO navigates through the scherzo with dexterous vividness, providing the listener with musical scenery of intense dramaturgy, paying admirable attention to all the minutiae twists in mood and sonic narrative. Awash with extraordinary solo contributions from the winds, the movement comes off with unusual intensity and shrill.
A portrayal of Leningrad by twilight, according to the composer, the Adagio assumes the form of an extended meditation, with interwoven layers of wistful nostalgia, pain and flickering hope. Clocking at seventeen and a half minutes, the movement is a substantial one, yielding to an instrumental Requiem, no less.
A gripping performance from the LSO and Noseda, the outer sections of the Adagio are clad in eventide colours of quasi-cinematic evocation, beautifully paced and delicately balanced, aptly contrasted by the agitated rendition of the core passage halfway through the movement.
Shostakovich’s finale, Allegro non troppo, is a vehement affair. Following a sustained introduction, the orchestra plunges into full on sonic combat of clashing themes, harmonies and textures. There is no triumph, only tragedy, hidden under false climaxes, displaying the harshest of irony. The real music is on those profoundly moving pages of sorrow and contemplation, ever shatteringly realised by the LSO under Noseda.
Rooted in mastery of orchestral narrative, the closing movement is given a ruthlessly honest performance, one firmly etched in the listeners mind and soul. Keeping up with the superlative quality of their previous volumes in the cycle, the LSO and Noseda provide us with a tremendous account of the Leningrad Symphony, a performance echoing the bleak realities of our times with poignancy few recordings can match.
London Symphony Orchestra
Gianandrea Noseda, conductor
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 60, ”Leningrad” (1939-41)
Recorded at Barbican Hall, London, in December 2019
LSO Live LSO0859 (2021), 1 SACD (Hybrid)
© Jari Kallio