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Shostakovich Symphony No. 7

Can music be a weapon in a life or death struggle? This is what was offered in 1941 to the people of Leningrad, under siege by the Nazis. As they fought back against the invaders, Shostakovich himself broadcast that he had started work on his seventh symphony, which was later formally dedicated to the city.

Although quickly written and performed outside the city, its first Leningrad performance had to wait until August 1942; and it would be another eighteen months before the siege of Leningrad ended, with over a million dead and life unimaginable for those who survived.

Wartime civilian life in the Soviet Union was unreal in many respects as the Soviet people were liberated to fight the common enemy. Churches were reopened, and Shostakovich’s music was promoted internationally rather than banned. The Seventh Symphony is a flower of that time and a rare enough example of music responding to and reflecting a patriotic cause.

Fast forwarding to today’s Leningrad (now St Petersburg again), Valery Gergiev plays a pivotal role in the city’s rich musical life as director of the Mariinsky Theatre. He is rightly famous for his interpretations of Shostakovich and this recording is part of the complete cycle of the composer’s symphonies being released on the Mariinsky label.

Gergiev’s attitude to any orchestra in this piece is, play it as if you mean it – imagine you were there. Always impactful, the first movement is nonetheless overwhelming under his direction – frenzied and nightmarish in its militaristic climax. The Mariinsky’s brass section is well able to cope with the garish aspects of the score, whilst the delicate winds excel in its more reflective passages. The strings are emphatic both in their phrasing of melodic lines and in the depth of sound they are asked to produce.

There are some works which just can’t be separated from the source of their inspiration, often their dedicatee. Berg’s Violin Concerto, ‘to the memory of an angel’, would be one such example. Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, the ‘Leningrad’, is undoubtedly another. It is well worth hearing the maestro revisit this and the rest of the symphonic cycle with his marvellous orchestra.

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