My first Shostakovich symphony – the “Leningrad”

leningrad.jpgA few weeks ago, I read a Mainland Chinese novel in which one of the major scenes involved a discussion of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 and its place in the early days of communist China. Naturally I became curious about this piece of music. I went online, conducted some research on which version to acquire, and went disc hunting. I ended up buying Russian conductor Barshai’s 1992 version of the symphony at mid-price. But first abit of information about the composer.

Dmitri Shostakovich (25 Sept 1906 – 09 August 1975) was probably the best known and most popular composer of Soviet era Russia. The composer had a hot-cold relationship with the government; at times, he received commendations for his compositions, but in 1936 and 1948, he was also suffered two official denunciations. His reputation has also varied greatly over the years. During the cold war years, he was often derided as being a mouth-piece for Soviet propaganda and Pierre Boulez even remarked that he saw “Shostakovich as the second, or even third pressing of Mahler”. In recent years, his popularity has increased and Solomon Volkov’s 1979 book Testimony argues that many of the composer’s pieces contained coded anti-government messages.

The composition of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 is material for an excellent biopic. Shostakovich resided in Leningrad during the worst period of the seige of the city by Nazi troops, and he composed the symphony as a response. The symphony’s value as both propaganda-piece and contribution to the Allied war effort was immediately recognised by the Soviet authorities. No doubt aided by the titles given to the movements, it became an icon of the war against fascism; the symphony was very popular both in the West and in the USSR as the embodiment of the fighting Russian spirit. Once the war ended, however, the West became deeply suspicious of the piece as a communist propaganda.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad” consist of 4 movements, which the composer himself labelled as War, Memories, Russia (My Native Field) and Victory. The symphony received its broadcast première in Europe by Henry Wood and the London Philharmonic Orchestra on 22 June 1942 in London and its première in the Western Hemisphere took place in New York on 19 July 1942, by the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini in a studio concert broadcast nationwide on radio. Shostakovich was awarded a Stalin Prize for the symphony.

The CD I acquired features Rudolf Barshai and the Symphony Orchestra of West German Radio. Rudolf Barshai formed the Moscow Chamber Orchestra in 1955 and in 1969 was asked by Shostakovich to premiere his 14th symphony. A one-time composition student and performing colleague of Shostakovich, he’s perhaps generally best known for his string orchestral arrangement of the the composer’s Eighth String Quartet.

How listenable is the symphony? I found the piece easy to like. The first movement is engaging even if the drums do sound banal at times. The symphony has been accused of being bombastic – and I suppose you could say that. But the “Leningrad” is a symphony boasting exaggerated emotions and maybe it is more approachable because of it. I will need to give it a couple more serious spins to see if the initial novelty wears off. At the moment, however, I am perfectly happy with this new discovery of mine.


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