This is an outstanding recording that improves upon Gergiev's first one from 2003 (Philips), which combined forces from the Mariinsky and Rotterdam orchestras, good as that recording was. The remake presents a small upgrade in the sound department. Musically, there is better playing and greater insight from Gergiev - at its best this is a totally riveting performance. But first a bit of background.
The Shostakovich Seventh has switched from being one of the composer's least played works to one of the most played. It tends to be greeted uncritically, but I often wonder if the music is diamond or paste. At its 1942-43 premieres around the world the symphony was hailed as a testament "against the forces of darkness" (i.e., Nazis), but its signature "invasion march" in the first movement was not conceived to be specifically about the events of the German siege of Leningrad, which the city endured for over 800 horrific days of terror and starvation. None of the other music in this massive work is programmatic, either. The overall tone is mostly elegiac and often melancholy until the brash and rather exhausting triumphalism of the ending. The typical listener, once past the blockbuster march (a kind of patriotic 'Bolero'), might lose interest in the diffuse three movements that follow.
The symbolism of the Seventh remains powerful for Russians, and while the score fell into disrepute in the West, it was being played constantly at home. As a result, the Mariinksy musicians and Gergiev have spent years lavishing care and attention on every detail. This care shows, primarily in two ways. First, the tawdry sections are done with dignity; there's hardly any reason to cringe. Second and more importantly, the epic nature of the work rises to nobility, and the lyrical sections are handled movingly. Bombast is forgotten when the climaxes are this explosive. Even Bernstein's two recordings, from New York and Chicago, which kept the Leningrad Sym. alive during its darkest neglect, are hard pressed to match Gergiev's intensity and drive.
The first movement sets out with force in a statement by massed strings that promises an epic work, and the whole movement presses forward relentlessly, allowing only a few reprises in the bare-bones woodwind solos following the march. These are played so convincingly that my chief reservation about this symphony - that it contains stretches of banality - is overcome. Shostakovich, following Mahler's lead, often wrote unexpected versions of a slow movement and scherzo. Here the second-movement Allegretto has the same tension-releasing effect as the minuet in the Mahler Second. The tone is mournful and graceful at the same time. Gergiev's delicate handling avoids gloominess, a familiar pitfall in Shostakovich. I'm reminded that Gergiev is at his best in quiet, poignant passages. The zany middle section, which is like a psychotic carnival, has no reference to the Siege of Leningrad that I can fathom, but its satiric bitterness is memorable.
The Adagio, placed third, has always struck me as ugly and strident, leading to string-orchestra music that strains to be tragic in a grating way. Gergiev manages to voice the ugly chords so that they sound effectively modernist, and the Mariinsky strings are so astonishing in their unanimity that they sound like ten string quartets. I realize that there are fans of this score who think that not a minute of it needs to be redeemed. For a doubter like me, however, Gergiev's handling of this movement comes as a relief.
But my suspicion that this score contains a good deal of paste, and pasteboard, is confirmed in the finale. It contains grand gestures and some quick-moving sections appropriate to an uplifting ending, yet frankly, the melange sounds banal. So I'm left, as with the equally unconvincing Eleventh, to give five stars to Gergiev for his great performance, not entirely for the music being performed.
In all, one of the top-ranked Leningrads, although if you only want one, Bernstein's only rival is himself,with two astonishing performances on Sony and DG.