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18.12.06

Shostakovich in 2006, Part 2

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Shostakovich, Symphony No. 7, Orchestre National de France, Kurt Masur, Sarah Nemtanu (released on October 31, 2006)
Kurt Masur's handling of certain parts of the orchestral repertory is sometimes thought to lack poetry. Over the past year, health problems have caused other concerns, which were evident on his recent trip to Washington with the London Philharmonic. However, reports have reached my ears of his exceptional work with the Orchestre National de France (where he has been music director since 2002), particularly in his Mendelssohn cycle and, although it cannot yet be called a cycle, his work in Paris on the symphonies of Shostakovich. (Masur's Shostakovich was a highlight during his tenure with the New York Philharmonic, too.) Reviews of his Paris DSCH 5th in 2004 were raves, and when his illness last winter seemed to have scuttled his planned performance of the Leningrad Symphony, the ONF decided not to cancel or replace the conductor but to postpone the performance until Masur was well again.

It finally took place on May 18 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, and this live recording captured the extraordinary result. Frank Cadenhead reviewed the concert for Musical America, published on May 26 (the review, Masur Conducts the 'Leningrad' in Paris, can be found on Masur's Web site). He said that the concert "set something of a gold standard, both for performances of the work and for the orchestra's level of accomplishment under this master musician." Christian Merlin also wrote a review (Une fresque saisissante, May 22) for Le Figaro (my translation):
The fact that Masur personally knew the composer and was familiar with Stalinism surely helped him penetrate the spirit of this music. It was not enough perhaps to lessen the sometimes tedious length of this monument, but it allowed him to give it a gripping dramatic intensity, at the edge of what can be sustained: the only way to accomplish the first movement's vertiginous crescendo, not merely an exercise in endurance but a nightmarish unfolding. As if on springs, Masur tapped his foot, made sounds, and his ONF musicians followed him as if a single person, at full bowing in the strings, at full power in the brass, at full incandescence in the percussion (the tireless Emmanuel Curt, on the snare drum).
The 7th symphony (op. 60) -- named the Leningrad because Shostakovich wrote most of the work while in that city during its siege by the Germany army -- is a gargantuan 75 minutes long, with the first movement close to half of that length. The first movement goes through 6 minutes of other identities, a broad, almost official opening, a slow section with solo flute that could be Debussy, before the insistent military march begins, with that same solo flute over insistent percussion. Often compared to Ravel's Bolero, the bulk of the movement is essentially one gesture over the course of over 15 minutes, a huge crescendo over an ostinato pattern, spinning out a single melodic idea. Jens has described his admiration of the Bernstein recording of the 7th symphony precisely because it has a ruthless sense of its military subject, if not necessarily propulsion (at 84 minutes, it is more drawn out than Masur's reading).

When the ONF played the Leningrad at the Proms in August, the London critics were not convinced, to say the least (as in The Guardian). Some listeners, including one Béla Bartók, simply do not care for the Leningrad Symphony. If you are not opposed to it, this recording is a thrilling live rendition, gutsy and on the edge, captured in excellent sound. As a sound document, it is also a tribute to Kurt Masur's career, especially his Shostakovich.

Naïve V 5071

Go to Part 1 / Part 3

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