The 900 day siege of Leningrad by Nazi invaders provided the inspiration for Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony - a statement of resistance, defiance and hope. And what conductor was better qualified than Leonard Bernstein to voice such bombastic utterance? This 1988 "live" performance/recording is a technicolour, widescreen tour de force. The first movement is bold and brilliant; Bernstein keeps the orchestra on "simmer" in the outer sections with much refined, gentle playing - the simplicity of the flute and string melodies contrasting well with the side drum's entry heralding a foretaste of things to come. The calm before the storm! Bernstein presents the many subsidiary themes with deft articulation as the Invasion gathers momentum; col legno, arco/pizzicati strings playing softly - before the return of the invasion theme - are clearly delineated conveying an icicle-like brittleness and incisiveness. Bernstein turns up the heat as the main theme gathers pace, adding much vivid colour and sharp contrast to Shostakovich's calculated repetition. We reach boiling point at the peroration, which is explosive - its relentless, driving vehemence is a bubbling cauldron of seething rage under Bernstein's baton, with the brass section positively screaming out in defiance!
The second movement allows Bernstein to flex his Mahlerian muscle. The irony of the unsettling, sardonic central section, with its "circus of horrors" ballet is made all the more grotesque by Bernstein's leisurely tempo - this kind of thing was meat and drink to Bernstein. The third movement's - Adagio - hymn-like, psalm is expressed with great passion and is deeply moving - not too heavy on the schmaltz - and the Moderato interlude is well-judged; its exuberant syncopations have snap and pace in abundance. There is time for reflection in the final statement of the psalm as the strings sing as one bringing the movement to a profoundly moving close.
The final movement slowly comes to life and breaks free of its slumber when the main allegro springs into action. Bernstein galvanizes his orchestra and the precision, clear articulation and immaculate ensemble makes light work of the march, which Bernstein conducts with vigour and whip-crack attack with some thrilling playing from the brass section! Dynamic contrasts are well controlled - at one point the full power of the strings is silenced and oboes and clarinets sing with great presence and clarity. Bernstein rushes headlong to the coda with a growling, crunching bass line underpining the charge as the brass play for all they are worth, singing out resplendently, as the symphony reaches a triumphant conclusion!
The first Symphony - a student work written when the composer was 19 - is very "Buster Keaton" or Chaplin-like in its style of composition. The opening movement contains music which is best described as comedic! Bernstein brings out the youthfulness; with wit, charm and energy to the fore and adding plenty of colour, fizz and froth! In direct contrast the slow movement is sorrowful with plaintive cellos and oboes bringing a sense of tragedy. However, the symphony's darker moments are outweighed by the sparkling effervescence contained in the music written by the highly precocious, young student. Bernstein does not wallow in over-sentimentality; lyricism and good taste prevail.
These discs represent some of the finest orchestral playing - stunning, in fact - and conducting to be found in any recording of Shostakovich's music - I would recommend immediate purchase.
First of all, I apologise for completely overlooking the First Symphony in this review. It's not a work I really rate or care for and I expect most potential buyers will be primarily interested in the Seventh. Sorry if that isn't the case!
Where my absolute favourite pieces of music are concerned, I tend to collect many different recordings to hear different conductors' views. Shostakovich's Seventh has been one of those pieces since I saw it on a televised BBC Prom concert twenty-odd years ago and I bought this Bernstein set (in its original edition) very soon afterwards. It's still the only recording of this work that I own and I've never got used to the profound impact it has on me whenever I play it. I've tried many other recordings (Haitink, Jansons, Barshai, Kondrashin, Temirkanov, Rozhdestvensky, to name just a few) to see if any can even come close to the devastating power and overwhelming emotion of Bernstein and his Chicago players: they can't.
Bernstein had a lukewarm relationship with the music of his Russian contemporary but he clearly believed whole-heartedly in this piece and directs a performance of the utmost conviction and concentration. He takes a fairly broad view of the opening theme, launching the symphony with a bold and epic sweep that depicts the handsome and proud city of Leningrad in all its glory. When we hear the same music some fifteen minutes later, broken and timid after the utter carnage of the 'invasion' music, it is incredibly moving. The two inner movements - more personal and human in tone than the outer ones - showcase some quite beautiful string and woodwind playing from the Chicago orchestra. The performance reaches its emotional zenith in a sublime account of the third movement; for me, one of the greatest pieces of music Shostakovich ever wrote. At times, I'm reminded a lot of the big, dark sound of Mravinsky's Leningrad Philharmonic, but there's no doubt who we're listening to in the Finale! Bernstein was always in a class of his own when it came to pacing a piece of music for the maximum effect, and when the great 'Leningrad' theme finally reappears in a broad and noble tempo after more than an hour of musical argument, it is utterly overwhelming. I must make special mention here of the phenomenal playing of the Chicago brass section. The power and volume they generate will make your jaw drop.
The recording was made live at Chicago's Orchestra Hall in 1988 and puts you close, but not too close, to the stage. The sound quality is exceptional throughout and balanced very naturally with a good left/right and front/back perspective. You won't hear a peep from the audience either, although I would have loved to hear the cheer and applause at the end!
This really is one hell of an experience; not just the greatest recording of the Seventh Symphony but quite possibly Bernstein's greatest ever recording too. It still wipes the floor with the competition and I expect it always will.
I never expected to write this review. I bought this set on its original release, and never enjoyed it-I found the recording constricted, dry and opaquely bass heavy and the interpretation turgid, certainly of the 7th. In reviewing the superb Temirkanov 7th recently, I made some comparisons, but not with this recording which I had not listened to for 15 years. An exchange with rjmcr (Richard) who has reviewed this set prompted me to give it another try-only for me to find that in a post- Stalinist purge, it had evidently been banished to the Oxfam Gulag or similar-whatever, I no longer had it, so I ordered it again in its reissued "Grand Prix "series at mid-price. It is not made clear whether the recording has been remastered, but frequently when DG reissue in their various series such as DG Masters the recordings have been remastered but this is not annotated in the notes. Whether it's this, or the passage of time, or my having replaced all my equipment about 4 years ago, or a combination of the above I know not, but I was astounded! The recording of the 7th is still very close, but very detailed, no drier than any Chicago recording will inevitably be these last 20 years or so, and the sonic impact is tremendous! Balancing is not quite right-woodwinds are too forward-but this is a minor point. Furthermore, I find LB's reading to be very well judged at worst, and overwhelming at best. The first movement is characterised by a very steady medium paced march, more staccato in its execution than many-brilliantly played, and if he misses the "awful" effect of the air-raid section in comparison to Gergiev, Ashkenazy and Temirkanov, he compensates for this with breath-taking tam-tam strokes at the climax. In the coda to this movement, when the opening string theme returns in the major key, he takes it much slower than others. This has the effect of making it an elegiac lament, rather than the rebirth of hope and spirit that others convey-it's certainly a valid view- and the final pianissimo return of the march is pppppp! It's really the 3rd movement that gets the full "Lennie" treatment-and he conducts as if it were by Mahler. It is searingly emotional and shatteringly dramatic by turns-at the tempo change LB is markedly slower than normal, but sustains the impact throughout. The finale opens with a very steady tempo similar to that of Gergiev-but where Gergiev maintains that tempo throughout, LB whips up the tempo to a spectacular and exciting climax. This is a truly stunning and well recorded performance-and if I prefer Ashkenazy or Temirkanov's new recording it is by a narrow margin, and I can see why anyone would rank this recording as their first choice! HOWEVER-the REAL gold on this set is LB's astonishing and truly superb reading of the First Symphony. Not even the most ardent of Shostakovich's admirers would say that this is a masterpiece-but it comes off as such in LB's expert hands. Here he displays all his true talents- he nudges the witty first movement along brilliantly, delivering the insidious little changes of tempi perfectly. He catches the acid wit among the playfulness of the second movement, so reminiscent of the First Piano Concerto, finds a great depth and beauty in the third movement and brings the strange, bumpy fourth movement to a thudding climax. Everything is timed and balanced to perfection, and the recording is more spacious than on the 7th. The orchestra plays brilliantly-as ever-in what must have been a rare performance of this work for them -and LB. This is Lennie at his absolute best. So perversely, it is this coupling of the First Symphony that combined with an outstanding 7th make the set at this new paltry price, the absolute top recommendation. The slimline packaging retains the original artwork and detailed notes. I've eaten enough humble pie-5 stars without any grudge! Stewart Crowe.
Forget the rest and stay clear of the Neeme Jarvi version , This Chicago Symphony Orchestra version with Bernstein is an amazingly powerful rich study full of colour and subtle nuances its a bit annoying that it over runs over two disc, but all is forgiven for the sheer glory of this rendering very highly recommended
the first stands comparison even with rostropovich's recording. the seventh is even better, especially the 4th movement, where the playing is outstanding. However, I was a little underwhelmed by the famous repeated snare drum section in the first movement- haitink or gergiev generate more menace and excitement in my view
Amazing! Whilst listening to this double cd recording of Shostakovich's 'Leningrad' symphony I was utterly transported by the expressive playing of the orchestra under Bernstein's direction. I was able to engage with the spirit of the music, and ( I must confess) - tears came to my eyes as I listened.
In my view, this recording has managed to capture a very special moment.