Friday 15 May 2015
Gramophone: Shostakovich No.7
"Järvi and his engineers offer ruthless clarity and precision, exposing a rogue E flat clarinet with a flash of the theme at one point (never heard that before) and lacerating flutter-tongued trumpets as the shock and awe peaks."
If a conductor and orchestra can get the opening right (and it's amazing how many sacrifice momentum to grandeur) then the chances are that the rest of this momentous piece will fall into place. Paavo Järvi and the Russian National Orchestra do just that. They are full of promise in the opening bars: bracing, upbeat, rhytmic, in truth about as optimistic as Shostakovich ever gets. And, as the music relaxes into a premature sense of well-being, the quality of the orchestral playing is self-evident-beautiful woodwind and string alternations, coolly accomplished. Then, against the barely audible rattle of side drum, something wicked this way comes: namely that pernicious theme.
It never ceases to amaze me how the daring musical metaphor at the heart of this first movement for so long negatively coloured opinions of the rest of the piece. The point of it was roundly missed as the tune which might have set Stalin's toe tapping underwent its terrifying Boléro-like mutations. Järvi and his engineers offer ruthless clarity and precision, exposing a rogue E flat clarinet with a flash of the theme at one point (never heard that before) and lacerating flutter-tongued trumpets as the shock and awe peaks. Shostakovich's instruments of choice for desolation - the bass clarinet and bassoon - express the numbness and loss with real eloquence.
It may be sacrilege to say that at times one wishes the Russian National Orchestra were less refined and more redolent of Russian orchestras of days gone by - but there is no denying the excellence of the playing. The ghostly dance that is the Scherzo is subtly coloured in the return with harp and fluttery flutes atmospherically underpinning the spookiest of bass clarinet solos. And there is pellucid beauty in the slow movement, where the strings spin out a passage of genuine heartbreak from their stark recitative.
So while I'm not sure I would go for Järvi over Petrenko and RLPO among more current recordings (I also have vivid memories of Bernstein and the Chicago Symphony on DG), the atmosphere of a real event is there, you might even say written into the piece. That long, slow, defiant, inexorable build to the coda is as gripping here as it always is - and, as the opening theme returns in hard-won triumph (that's why it is so important that its vaultingly optimistic character is properly established at the start), there is that thrilling tenuto in the trumpets lifting mind, body, and spirit into the final pages.