on 19 August 2010
Shostakovich's epic 7th symphony is a difficult piece to carry off successfully, in the concert hall or recording studio. It's long, structurally rambling and critics have always hated the Bolero-style repetitive section of the first movement - Bartok even blew it a musical raspberry in the fourth movement of his Concerto for Orchestra. Tough, says I. I have heard this piece three times live, and find myself with no less than 12 recordings on vinyl, RBCD and SACD. Yes, I know, that's anal..
Nevertheless, I wouldn't consider any of my 12 recordings as definitive. It's just not that sort of piece. The closest to perfection I have heard this played was by the LPO under Haitink live at the Royal Festival Hall in the 80's. I have a vivid memory of seeing dust rain from the ceiling at the ear-shattering climax of the opening movement, presumably dislodged by 120 dBA of sound energy. But I digress...
It's strange that Haitink's recordings rarely capture the fire and passion of his finest live performances. That's my second digression.
So, to the matter in hand. Is this Ceatani/Milan performance any good? And what does it sound like? The news is mostly good, although it starts off rocky. Caetani's relatively ponderous pacing of the opening 'Leningrad' theme lacks energy and passion. Conversely, the initial `skippy' pacing of the subsequent 'Nazi' theme saps the menace and implacability that this obsessive, repetitive sequence demands. I think Caetani's recognises this, too. By the time that Shostakovich is throwing the kitchen sink at your ears (and attempting to destroy the RFH's ceiling in the process) he has surreptitiously changed down a gear and adopted a more mainstream, menacing pace.
After some unwise initial tempi in the first movement, the performance gains cumulative stature and coherence. Although the playing couldn't really be called polished, it's gutsy, committed and has its heart in the right place. That suits the music very well.
As for the sound, it's good, but not quite in the same class as the astonishing sound-scape crafted by the Arts engineers for Caetani's 11th. However, it does cope with this piece's fearsome dynamic range without flinching, fudging or fluffing. That's probably unique in my repertoire of recorded 7ths.
So, it's a generally good performance, in fine sound. How does it stack up against the other 7th's on SACD? Let's see.
1) Dmitriev/Petersburg (Radio, not Philharmonic!) on Waterlily. A stone disaster. Sloppily conducted and slipshod playing, with some horrendous fluffs in prominent places. And then the strategic coughing and hacking from the emphysemic audience carpet-bombs what's left of the music. Even in minimalist/analogue sound, this has to be a non-starter, I'm afraid. Moving on swiftly...
2) Royal Concertgebouw/Jansons on RCO Live. I find this reading over-rated. The Concertgebouw play like angels, of course. That's what they do - this is one of the world's very top orchestras, after all. However, Janson's reading and grasp of overall structure is unexceptional (surprising, as he was a protégé of the great Mravinsky, of course), whilst the Polyhymnia sound is thick, muddy and not very transparent. For shame, in THAT great acoustic...?
3) Gergiev with the Kirov AND Rotterdam orchestras (yes, both) on Philips. I don't always go eye to eye with Gergiev's performances, but he has the Leningrad banged to rights. Overall, I find this the most coherent reading overall, both in terms of short and long-term structure. Tempi in I are spot on, giving the right majesty and menace. II is played slower than usual, although it works, giving extra drama and concentration. Even the over-long III sounds more integrated than usual, whilst the steady pacing and cumulative power generated in the final movement brings the house down- as it should!
4) Kitayenko/Cologne on Capriccio. I haven't heard this yet, as I intend to survey his entire cycle of Shostakovich symphonies later in the year. However, his serious approach, together with the excellent sound encountered on other Shostakovich repertoire on this label, suggests this might just be a contender.
In the hear-and-now of Shostakovich 7ths on SACD, though, I award the Caetani top marks for sound and the Gergiev for the performance.
See, we got there in the end!