Archive for October 27, 2018

Shostakovich – The Leningrad Symphony

Posted in History, Music with tags , , , on October 27, 2018 by telescoper

I don’t know. You wait 50-odd years for the opportunity to hear a live performance of Symphony No. 7 in C by Dmitri Shostakovich, and then two come along within a year. It was last November in Cardiff that I first heard this epic work in concert, and last night I was at the National Concert Hall in Dublin where it was performed by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Stanislav Kochanovsky.

The first half of last night’s concert featured two works by Dmitry Kabalevesky (a contemporary of Shostakovich): his overture to the Opera Colas Breugnon and is Cello Concerto No. 1 with soloist Richard Harwood. Both of these were pleasant enough but I (and, I think, most of the rest of the audience) had their minds firmly on the main event to come after the interval.

The Leningrad Symphony is a piece that evokes particular memories for me as I first heard it about thirty years ago on the radio while sitting in a car that was driving through a torrential downpour in the middle of the night from Kansas City to Lawrence in the mid-West of the USA. The repeating theme and snare drum figures in the 1st Movement that represent the remorseless advance of the invading army had even more powerful effect when accompanied by the incessant driving rain. I’ve heard this piece on recordings and live broadcasts on many occasions since then, but had never heard it performed live until last November.

Shostakovich in a fireman’s uniform in Leningrad, 1941

What can I say about this work? Well, not much that hasn’t been said before. It was dedicated to the city of Leningrad where the composer lived, until he was evacuated during the siege, and where he wrote most of the 7th Symphony. He served as a volunteer fireman in Leningrad during the early part of the Second World War (see above), having been turned down for military service owing to his poor eyesight. Leningrad was besieged by German forces for almost 900 days, from September 1941 until January 1944, and it’s impossible not to see the work in this historical context.

Though the four movements have themes – `War’, `Memories’, `My Native Field’ and `Victory’ – this is not really a programmatic piece. It does, however, succeed in invoking the terror and brutality of armed conflict in a manner that is so compelling that it’s almost overpowering. Many symphonies have as a theme some kind of struggle between light and dark, or between good and evil, but it always seemed to me that this work is not so much like that as it is a representation of a struggle simply for survival against annihilation. Even the end of the intense fourth movement, when the music finally resolves into the key of C Major, suggesting a kind of `victory’, echoes of the previous conflict persist, suggesting (to me anyway) that this particular battle does not intend in any kind of triumph but in a sense of grim endurance that is more resignation than resolution. The composer himself, however, explained later in life that the ending represented

..the victory of light over darkness, wisdom over frenzy, lofty humanism over monstrous tyranny.

We could do with a victory of that sort these days.

Musicologists tend not to like this Symphony so much as some of Shostakovich’s others and its reputation dwindled in the West in the post-War period. Maybe it is true that it has defects when thought of as an exercise in composition, but fortunately I am not a professional critic so I am quite content to say that for me, personally, this work has an emotional impact like few others and it is one of my favourites in the whole symphonic repertoire. Last night the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra delivered an impassioned performance that confirmed everything I felt about this work but with the added dimensions that you can only get from a live performance.

At the beginning I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy last night’s performance. I thought it began at an uncomfortably brisk tempo, but once the orchestra had settled down it turned into a magnificent performance. From the immaculately controlled crescendo representing the advancing invaders that erupts into a nightmarish depiction of the ensuing battle right through to the last movement with its ending in resolution tempered in bitterness and regret, this performance had me gripped at least as much as last year’s.

In the first movement, Kochanovsky had the strings playing with a strident, agonized sound that was remarkably affecting . But the highlight of the evening came from the brass section placed in the choir stalls (four French horns, three trombones and three trumpets; you can see their empty desks in the picture I took before the start of the concert). When they stood up and let rip at the climax of the first movement crescendo the effect was absolutely thrilling. Their position high above the stage made it seem they were playing right in your face. When the glorious noise eventually subsided I realized that I had been gripping the armrests of my seat and my knuckles had turned white. I don’t think you can experience music with such intensity unless you hear it live.

At the end there was an immediate outbreak of cheering and a well-deserved standing ovation. I wish I could have stayed longer but I had to leave to catch a train back to Maynooth. (The Leningrad Symphony being rather long, I thought I might have to dash off at the end so I booked an end-row seat.) Let me at least use the opportunity afforded by this blog to congratulate Stanislav Kochanovsky and all the musicians last night for a magnificent performance of an epic masterpiece.