Jansons’ Great Shostakovich Seventh

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WP 2019 - 2SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 7, “Leningrad” / Bavarian Radio Symphony Orch.; Mariss Jansons, cond / BR Klassik BRK900184 (live: Munich, February 11-12, 2016)

As I mentioned in my review of Mariss Jansons’ outstanding recording of the Schubert Ninth, he is a conductor who blows hot and cold. Some of his recorded performances are outstanding while others are pretty mediocre (especially, for some odd reason, his Mahler), and you really can’t tell from one disc to the next. Happily, he seems to have a good rapport with this work, which he has conducted on a number of occasions: there are two earlier recordings, with the Leningrad Philharmonic from 1988 and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra from 2006, a live performance with this same Bavarian Radio Orchestra from 2005, and another live performance with the New York Philharmonic from April 2016, two months after this one. All are good, but in many small details this one, scheduled for release in October, struck me as superior.

One such are his tempi, which in all four movements are somewhat faster than his recording with the Concertgebouw. Another comes from his decisions in acceleration and deceleration of said tempi. His first movement, believe it or not, is nearly two minutes slower than Toscanini’s performance—although if you check the score, Toscanini’s tempo is dead on the money—yet except for the acceleration near the end of the soldiers’ march section, none of it sounds rushed, and this acceleration gives one the feeling of an unstoppable force. Interestingly enough, at that exact same spot in his performance, Toscanini slows down, and this, in its own way, also gives a feeling of inevitability to the onslaught. So don’t come crying to me that Toscanini always conducted things too fast!

In the second movement, Jansons is a bit slower than Toscanini, by 35 seconds (over a movement that lasts about 12 minutes), but Jansons doesn’t “feel” slow and Toscanini doesn’t “feel” fast, the reason being that the Italian conductor took Shostakovich’s pace literally while Jansons introduces some moments of rubato, albeit tasteful ones that enhance the moment rather than making it drag. He also played the opening melodic line just a hair slower than Toscanini.

In general, what I particularly liked about Jansons’ reading was that he made very effective dynamic contrasts throughout the symphony, paying particular attention to all the little crescendos and decrescendos in the score. In the quieter, slower sections, Jansons suspended time and made these passages “float” where Toscanini ever-so-slightly nudged them forward with a “singing” cantilena. The Italian conductor was also much slower than Jansons in the third movement, but in the fourth it worked the other way around. This was the one movement that Toscanini conducted quicker than score tempo in order to press the matter home more forcefully, and thus the one portion of this performance that Shostakovich complained about; but when Leopold Stokowski finally got around to conducting it, Shostakovich didn’t like his interpretation at all!

Jansons’ slower tempi in the last movement gives the music excellent gravitas, but to be fair, Toscanini imbued the whole movement with a beautiful cantilena feel—perhaps too Italianate for Shostakovich, but effective when heard on its own without an A/B comparison. Yet another detail that goes by quickly but is better than in previous readings is the stronger accent that Jansons gives to the basses when they enter near the beginning of the movement. Of course, sonics also play a part in our emotional response to such a work. Toscanini’s recording, though greatly enhanced by Urania in their recent pressing, suffered from the claustrophobic sonics of Studio 8-H, and RCA’s engineers “flattened out” his dynamics changes because, if they set them to the loudest moments, the quietest would not be inaudible on the recording, and if they set them to the softest the loud passages would make the needle jump off the record. This was a constant problem with Toscanini’s RCA recordings, and Urania, alas, did not fix the extreme changes in dynamics marked in the score (but I have in my own copy, which you can listen to HERE).

As to the Jansons recording, the sound is much “airier” here than in his Concertgebouw version, just as the Concertgebouw recording was airier than the one with the Leningrad Philharmonic. You can hear samples of both on YouTube if you’d like to check (as I did). Yet even with more air around the orchestra, Jansons elicits a slightly grittier sound in the loud passages here than he did in 2006, and this is better for the symphony.

Of course, you are free to disagree with me if you tend to prefer the Concertgebouw recording to this one, but as far as I’m concerned, this is the best stereo/digital performance of this symphony.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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