Culture Magazine

Concert Review: Don't Mention the War

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra marches on Leningrad.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Concert Review: Don't Mention the War

A propaganda poster during the Siege of Leningrad.
It says "
Everybody, rise to defend Leningrad."

The Siege of Leningrad during what the Russians call the Great Patriotic War (and what the rest of the world calls World War II) was a case of unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. German troops marched on the city in 1941 and besieged it for 900 days. During that epic siege, composer Dmitri Shostakovich conceived and completed his Symphony No. 7, working in the city as it was under fire and ultimately finishing the work at a dacha to the east.
On Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall, it was the task of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and its remarkable current music director Mariss Jansons to perform this work, a piece shot through with images of the stark inevitability of war and the horrific consequences of combat. Mr. Janssons injected ice into the veins with the opening of the epic first movement, a descending string theme that suggests Russian strength and the bluster of propaganda in its choice of an officious C Major.
There is no development of this theme, rather a long section where the orchestra plays an insipid and very Austrian theme, cribbed (deliberately) from both an aria from Lehar's The Merry Widow, an operetta that was a particular favorite of Hitler's. Shostakovich ends each repeat with a few notes of "Deutschland über alles." This music starts pianissimo, with little cat feet against the tappa-tappa-tap of a side drum. With each dynamic variation (there is no melodic change, only an increase of volume), the "enemy troops" get closer and closer, a vivid picture of the German army getting ready for its siege.
The battle culminated in a face-off between the "German" and "Russian" forces, a grand battle of horn sections seated on opposite sides of the Carnegie stage. Mr. Jansons kept these huge forces under tight rein, keeping the rhythmic snap in the long arching buildup, playing the clash of titanic weapons out in the orchestra with huge blasts of horns sounding like alarms and klaxons in the rubble of the city.
The Bavarian tapped into that sense of grief and loss in the second half of the epic first movement, with a long bassoon solo that wailed over the corpses killed in the Nazi shelling. This led to a final recapitulation of the opening theme, the sound of a populace numb with shock. The second movement, a stately scherzo flirted with contrapuntal writing in the strings that yielded to a brief and frantic trio. Terror had been abated and suddenly returned.
The publication of Testimony, the much praised but questioned memoir of Shostakovich's life written by the musicologist Solomon Volkov has led listeners to speculate whether this composer's most inspired patriotic work was in fact the ultimate backward slap at Stalin and the oppressive environment that existed under his reign. The use of repetitive, simple themes in the central movements of this work can be seen as a parody of so-called Russian "socialist realism", and the bright C Major key a cloak of the composer's true intent.
The slow movement had funereal weight, the feeling of numb, incomprehensible grief sung out in the lower reaches of the orchestra, slowly spreading to the brass. Mr. Jansons drew stirring sounds here from the depths to the heights, with elegaic solos for the woodwinds and horns.
This was Shostakovich reaching out to his fellow citizens, trapped with them and balancing between the omnipresent propaganda of the state and the real dangers that he faced trapped within the city. The finale offered hope but with another twist, a last re-iteration of the "Merry Widow" theme as a lumbering funeral march. 

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