Review: Shostakovich’s Leningrad, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra

Wednesday, April 20 2016
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Mariss Jansons, conductor

Shostakovich, Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad” (1941)

Well, Shostakovich’s Leningrad as performed by one of the world’s great orchestras deserves a more thoughtful post and comprehensive review than I have time for tonight.  Ostensibly the symbol of St. Petersburg’s defiance against Nazi occupation, musicologists would later reinterpret the piece as protest against Stalinism, not least because the composer himself expressed that his Seventh is “not about Leningrad under siege. It’s about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off”.  Can’t a cigar just be a cigar sometimes?  Does Shostakovich’s music ever function without subtext?

Interestingly, I think Mr. Jansons conducted Leningrad not politically but instead as a generalized depiction of humanity vs its vices.  Listening to the piece in person tonight, I realized for the first time that the latter half of the first movement is basically Bolero on steroids, repeating the same theme (the so-called invasion theme) in increasing loudness and entropy until every instrument is blasting at full capacity.  Yet unlike the satisfying sudden death ending of Bolero, the movement does not end on the climax but rather on a restless denouement.  Similarly, though the symphony concludes with the full orchestra blazing a triumphant C major, underneath there is a gnawing, repetitive pattern of interjections that is perhaps retreated instead of resolved as of the final, nominally victorious note.  Closure is denied over and over: while the human spirit finds a way to triumph over any instantiation of evil, be it Hitler or Stalin, evil itself can never be fully vanquished, and underneath every victory lurks elements of the next conflict.

As for the orchestra itself, I will just say that for such a large ensemble playing this ambitious score, there were no discernible weaknesses to my ear.  The woodwind principals were all first-rate, and like the other European orchestras that I’ve sampled this season, the brasswinds are far superior to most of their American counterparts.  Good thing, too, as you need good brass for Shostakovich, if only ironically.
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