Arts » Classical Music

ISO closes Russian Mid-Winter Festival with Shostakovich 7th

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Dmitry Shostakovich
  • Dmitry Shostakovich

Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975) led a stressful life, with all of his productive years under the iron hammer of Soviet Communism.   Quite possibly he reached the nadir of his existence in 1941, during the Nazi siege of Leningrad (since then restored to its original name -- St. Petersburg), wherein he was ensconced during the early years of WWII.

It was then and there that he produced his lengthy monument to Soviet Russia's withstanding that siege--a symphony in four long movements--his Seventh (Op. 60, "Leningrad") out of the fifteen he would complete by 1971.   This capped the three-concert ISO Mid-Winter Russian Festival: Fate, Fantasy and War--of which the latter term surely applies herein.

At an average performing time of 75 minutes, the Seventh is the composer's longest symphony, and possibly the longest to come from Soviet Russia.  Since that was the only work performed (with no intermission), ISO music director Krzysztof Urbański spent the first 20 minutes discussing it, playing movement-by-movement examples.  He called the first movement a "pure sonata-allegro form," characteristic of most repertoire symphonies. 

Yet in place of the development of the first two themes -- which we normally expect, we hear a most unique feature of any symphony: a statement and an extended repetition of the so-called "Invasion" theme, a march which starts as a whisper with string pizzicato and snare drum, repeating 12 times, gradually getting louder and enveloping more of the orchestra until it becomes an overwhelming cacophony of sound while at once recapping the movement's opening. 

Urbanski conducts Shostakovich 7th - JOANNA URBANSKA
  • Joanna Urbanska
  • Urbanski conducts Shostakovich 7th

This figure is also termed the "Nazi March"--and certainly recalls Ravel's Bolero in its structure.  Rhythmically, the five-note descending figures recall the middle movement of the Sibelius Fifth Symphony. Urbański managed this 15-minute crescendo masterfully.

For me, the first movement is the symphony's raison d'etre; the final three movements descend to characteristic Shostakovich, showing less inspiration than all of his First, Fifth and Tenth Symphonies.  Indeed the Seventh ends triumphantly almost identically to the manner of the Fifth, save for dropping a whole tone from D to C (major).  

Nonetheless Urbański knew the work--conducting as usual without score--to make its beautiful parts sing out, to make us feel them as he was.  His mastery of all the sections--they played together and stayed together--were a monument to his industry, a testimony to both his talent and his use of it to convey the composer's essence without always allowing us to feel it in the gut.   Perhaps Shostakovich suffered too much during those years to convey to us continuous beauty. Feb. 6; Hilbert Circle Theatre

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