This is a reissue, on Warner’s budget-priced Apex label, of a 1998 reading by Kurt Masur of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. It was recorded in concert during his time as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. In his book on the recent history of the orchestra, The New York Philharmonic from Bernstein to Maazel
(2010), the author and conductor, John Canarina, quotes the New York Times
critic, Allan Kozinn’s verdict on the performance. “Mr. Masur made it sound less like patriotic poster art and more like the wrenching human drama that Shostakovich intended.” I think I know what Mr Kozinn was getting at and to some extent I agree with him. This is a sober and well considered account of what has been one of the composer’s more controversial scores. However, I’m not sure that Masur offers us a “wrenching human drama”; for that you need to turn to a conductor such as Leonard Bernstein (review
Masur is sturdy and resolute at the start of the immense first movement – perhaps even with a touch of defiance – and his tempo seems to me to be well judged. He handles the subsequent long G major violin theme and the lyrical episode that flows from it very well. The most controversial aspect of this score is what would normally be the development section. However, at this point in the symphony Shostakovich places an extended passage consisting of a dozen repetitions of the same banal theme in a Bolero
-like crescendo, which suggests an army approaching from the distance. This, he later said, was the “Invasion Theme”. Masur plays the passage ‘straight’ without any histrionic gestures and in due course achieves a mighty climax. He then does the extended lyrical but melancholic section between the climax and the end of the movement very well and the NYPO’s principal bassoonist excels in his extended solo.
Masur treats the second movement as a welcome contrast after the emotional rigours of the first movement. The opening string material is delicately played and the oboe solo that grows out of this material is wistful. The central episode in 3/8 time (4:50-7:00) is sardonic and biting, with pungent contributions from the woodwind, not least the strident, wailing E-flat clarinet at the start. The New York players are suitably brash in this episode, which is followed by a return to the opening material and mood. I find Masur’s way with this movement very convincing.
His way with the slow movement is measured and patient and here the NYPO strings offer some fine playing. The moderato risoluto
section (from 7:47) is biting - the brass are potent – and the climax, with the brass declaiming the opening chorale, is intense. The long melody for the violas (13:11-14:23) is eloquently played and Masur and his team make a fine job of the last few minutes of the movement. If you turn to Bernstein you’ll find a draining, intense reading of this movement beside which Masur seems rather sober. However, the Bernstein approach, while it resonates with me, won’t be to everyone’s taste and Masur’s plainer, yet still powerful take on the music has much to commend it.
He holds the finale together convincingly. It’s not without its strident, even banal passages but, equally, there’s much in Shostakovich’s music that’s impressive and Masur, a vastly experienced hand, navigates his way shrewdly through the score. The build-up to the final peroration begins a long way out – as far back as 11:26 you might say – and Masur excels at maintaining both tension and momentum. He paces the music carefully, not allowing it to become too slow and grandiloquent, though he does broaden the tempo at 15:31 and maintains an expansive pace, which is not inappropriate, until the end.
In summary, Masur gives a straightforward, very reliable performance of this symphony and if that sounds like faint praise it’s not intended that way. There are no unwarranted histrionics in his performance and this vastly experienced conductor is a good guide to this score. I liked his performance and it helps that the NYPO plays ardently for him. Since this is a budget priced release I’d say that Masur’s is an ideal way for a newcomer to the score to try it out. The only snag is that, reprehensibly, Warner Classics provide no notes whatsoever, rendering the release useless to the impulse purchaser who thinks ‘I’ll try that’.
However, I ought say that it is possible to dig deeper into this score than Masur does. I’ve already mentioned the Bernstein recording, which is also taken from concert performances (review
). That’s very much a one-off performance of amazing intensity and some may feel it’s too red-blooded. My colleague, Dan Morgan, was very enthusiastic about Valery Gergiev’s recording (review
), though I’ve not heard that and there are several other recordings listed in our Masterworks Index
for this symphony. Nonetheless, Masur’s is a decent budget price version of this symphony.