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Symphony No 7
Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev
One acerbic US critic dismissed Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony as “a woolly mammoth which emerged after the Stalinist freeze”. Once upon a time I would have said, “I wish I’d thought of that!” Now, I’m not so sure. Yes, it’s still a sacred monster and Gergiev’s reading lasts more than 82 minutes (two and a half minutes longer than his previous effort, which also featured the bizarre combination of both the Rotterdam and Kirov orchestras because, apparently, the composer wanted the work played by two ensembles – a fact new to me).
However, I’d forgotten just how much of the score is actually quite dark and brooding. This reading has none of the agonized, self-dramatised protraction of Bernstein’s mid- 1980s version with the Chicago Symphony (his only recorded foray with that orchestral war machine) which clocks in at 85 minutes. In this version with the Mariinsky Orchestra (formerly Kirov) Gergiev demonstrates again what a superb orchestral builder he is. Unlike, say, Petrenko in Liverpool, whose orchestra has long had exposure through a large of body of recordings, the Kirov Orchestra was largely unknown in the West before Gergiev’s emergence as a major podium force. There’s little agit- prop bombast here, and even the so-called “Invasion” theme, supposedly parodied by Bartók in the fourth movement of his Concerto for Orchestra (it’s in a major key, favoured by Russian composers since Rimsky-Korsakov, who called it the “evil” major) features a particularly nasty snare drum. Gergiev takes the second movement daringly slowly, hardly Moderato poco allegretto but with a winsome, bucolic theme and lovely interaction between oboe and cor anglais.
Similarly, in the real slow movement, there is a lovely flute solo reminiscent of the one in the second adagio of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. After the subsequent paroxysm, the violas contribute a healing serenity. The other unofficial solo here is Gergiev’s mutterings. The finale packs a visceral punch. The SACD sound is rewardingly high, as is the dynamic range.