Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony of is titled “Leningrad” and was completed during the siege of that city in World, War 2. It was even performed there during the siege as an act of defiance by the city’s radio orchestra who were given extra rations to keep their strength up. It was said to be a depiction of the fight against Fascism, a call to arms to the people in that city and the Soviet Union generally to resist the marauders and fight to the glory of the patriotic ideal. The more cynical dismissed the work as a piece of musical propaganda.
Or is it ? As with most Shostakovich pieces, one cannot take things at face value – the music and the historical context is vitally important and yes, the symphony evokes so much of that. But is it more a depiction of the city that “Stalin destroyed and which Hitler merely finished off “ ? Maybe. Ambiguous though it is, I do not think you can dismiss the work, as Virgil Thompson did by calling it a piece that was “written for the slow-witted, the not very musical and the distracted”. That it most certainly ain’t.
Enough of the historical context, what of the music ? It was magnificent – probably as good as the All Blacks performance at Eden Park at the same time (except when the Wallabies scored, of course). Starting with an expansive opening, guest conductor Vasily Petrenko, music director of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and one of the rising stars in classical music, and the NZSO had a thorough grasp of the music and what Shostakovich wanted to say. The so-called ‘invasion theme’ was built up from small beginnings with the snare drum into a blistering climax of sound and emotion. You could feel it both in the music and see it in the playing. Petrenko’s sense of control especially in dynamics was exceptional and the orchestra responded accordingly. The composer’s various thematic ideas were all brought to the fore clearly and unmistakably. The ‘invasion theme’ goes from being harmless and trite to being painfully intense as a jackhammer. You are overwhelmed by intense sound and the sense of fear that is unmistakable.
If there is a requiem in the piece, then it must be in the third movement. Some would say that it is very Mahlerian and yes, the harmonic influences can be heard at various points. It conveys sadness, pain and remembrance. All of that was captured here and the strings in particular played this like intense chamber music which in many ways, this movement is.
This was a hugely memorable performance by Petrenko and the NZSO. It captured so much of what is in the music both explicit and ambiguous and set amongst the historical contexts, one could not help rising to one’s feet to applaud conductor and orchestra. Sadly, those of us who did were in the minority and I guess not everyone may appreciate or understand the work outside the historical background. But you could not be moved somehow by such an intense, well-shaped, energetic rendition of this historically important work.
Earlier, Michael Houston was the soloist in Rachmaninoff’s 4th Piano Concerto, a work that has suffered because it never really fitted in with the times but still captured the essence of the composer in its sharpness and pianism. Not as melodic or elegant as the rest of the concerti, it is still imbued with energy and sufficient tricky bits to make a performer wary – like any Rachmaninoff work for piano, one cannot toss it off lightly and Houston, who knows the work very well, did not disappoint. That said, I did wonder who Petrenko had last performed this with – in a taste of things to come with the Shostakovich, he kept the NZSO going at a whip-crack pace and I had the inkling that Michael would not be able to keep up. Not to worry, it was all under control !