Saturday 11 July 2015
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7 - SA-CD review
"Do we need another Shostakovich symphony? Yes we do, and especially this one! As for the third element, we owe, once again, much to the Pentatone engineers for transmitting the wide dynamics without the slightest distortion and with a detailed soundstage embracing you to the point of complete involvement."
Do we need another Shostakovich symphony? Yes we do, and especially this one!
With already 8 different versions of the seventh symphony in the Super Audio domain, one wonders why Pentatone issued this ninth version. Contractual obligation? For completeness sake? It’s possible. But why should we care.
As I see it, Shostakovich is one of the greatest, if not ‘the’ greatest composer of the twentieth century, meriting repeated attention like, for instance, Bach or Beethoven. His music rarely is about ‘nothing’. Even his film scores and Jazz Suites have something to say.
We have here to judge three elements: the composition, the interpretation and the transmitting.
Inspiration is a mystical thing. Where does it come from; what triggers it; why do some have it and others not at all. It reminds me of a Polish painter, Beksinski, of whom a pupil of his told me that he would sit in front of a canvas, waiting for inspiration and then starting without knowing where he would be going. He now is seen as 'having a surrealist tendency', though I would prefer to see him as a ‘Symbolist’. Whatever the case, when I visited him in Sanok in the 1970s he was reluctant to tell me what any of his paintings symbolized.
The same phenomenon could be transposed to Shostakovich. Much has been said about his seventh symphony, mostly about Nazi horror and heroic Russian resistance. But with hindsight and Volkov’s ‘Testimony’, said to be Shostakovich’s thoughts on his life, beliefs and compositions, a different picture emerges. How does a gifted composer, product of his time, survive in a barren cultural landscape; walking on a narrow ridge between culturally ignorant masters on the one side and the forces of inspiration on the other? Creating a masterpiece with a double meaning seems to have been the answer. The Communist Authority grabbed the symphony up as a piece of propaganda against, indeed, Nazi horror, Russian defiance and.. (last movement) heroic survival.
The fact that a photo copy of the score was, immediately upon completion, secretly sent to the United States, gives reason to believe that the seventh was in reality an outcry against all forms of utterly useless killing and destruction of all the Hitlers as well as the Stalins in this world. And not just against ‘the enemy’, but also against their own people threatening their personal supremacy.
Some blame Shostakovich for ‘stealing’ the idea of Ravel’s Bolero in what is seen as the German ‘invasion’; the repeated march-like variations in the first movement. The difference, however, is that Ravel’s ingenious score ends in more of the same, whereas Shostakovich’s variations end in more and more deeply felt horror. Even the seemingly gentle moments in the symphony have an undertone of lament and sadness. The ‘survival’ in the final movement is, until the very end, contrasted with C major in the upper and C minor in the lower regions.
Against this background, the interpretation of this symphony has many pitfalls. Some conductors have a tendency to believe in the almighty Russian spirit, rendering it bombastic rather than tragic. Paavo Järvi is seen by some as a ‘cold frog’, with more precision that emotion. I beg to differ with such an opinion. He shows himself to be a true conveyor of the deeper meaning of this symphony without succumbing to personal glory. And the RNO is the perfect vehicle.
As for the third element, we owe, once again, much to the Pentatone engineers for transmitting the wide dynamics without the slightest distortion and with a detailed soundstage embracing you to the point of complete involvement.
It’s my fourth version of this symphony and I would not want to be without it. Highly recommended!