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. 

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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