ALBUM TITLE: Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7
WORKS: Symphony No. 7
PERFORMER: Hallé/Mark Elder
CATALOGUE NO: CD HLL 7537
In an already crowded field, this recording of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony seizes attention with one of the most purposeful-sounding starts of any version. Indeed, the opening theme even sounds a touch jaunty, barely suggesting the sombre quality heard in other accounts. This eases into an almost cloudless pastoral, veiled and tender strings underpinning carefree piccolo playing by the late Ronald Marlowe (to whose memory this recording is dedicated). Then, as if from a great distance, the rattle-rata-tat of the invasion theme begins; maintained at a steady tempo throughout, its sinister qualities only become evident when upon us with great artillery-like crashes.
By the end of this live performance, the finale’s ending played with such stoic nobility, you truly believe you have just heard one of the very greatest symphonies of the 20th century. However there’s a difference between enjoying a live performance and having it as an immutable recording. The Hallé’s playing is never less than immaculate, with particularly outstanding string playing; yet repeated listenings reveal a certain detachment, or less than full emotional engagement in too many passages in especially the central two movements. Hearing Vasily Petrenko and his Liverpool musicians in their acclaimed Naxos recording (released last year) reveals a crucial dimension: Petrenko truly inhabits this music and its emotional trajectory from beginning to end. While with Mark Elder, the third movement in particular sounds merely a series of episodes – superbly though each of those is played – Petrenko makes that movement cohere into a single dramatic span. Even the invasion theme is more terrifying in Petrenko’s hands.