Virtual heresy to say so, but Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony has always struck me as a self-indulgently longwinded work, even in the many fine performances I’ve heard, including the St Peterburg Philharmonic Orchestra under Valery Gergiev, and Tuesday’s Prom account from the CBSO conducted matchlessly by Andris Nelsons.
Certainly the circumstances of its composition are noble and heroic, Shostakovich penning much of the work whilst firewatching during the lengthy siege of Leningrad in 1941. Equally gripping are details of its first performances, including its western premiere under Henry Wood at the Proms, conducting from a transcript of a smuggled microfilmed score.
But the piece itself, coming in at 75 minutes, is too much of a gesture of defiant fist-brandishing, and can we really wait comfortably during those endless paragraphs of introspective note-spinning before the hard-won peroration is finally achieved?
It begins brilliantly, the opening movement’s onslaught of the jackbooters marshalled by an indefatigable snare-drummer (here the newly-appointed Adrian Spillett leading a phalanx of colleagues alongside a hugely augmented brass section, and Nelsons somehow conveying that this was a diatribe against all totalitarianism, whether Nazi or Stalinist).
But the ruminations of subsequent movements meander mercilessly, though the delicacy of the CBSO woodwind, flautist Marie-Christine Zupancic absolutely outstanding in her constant exposure, did make eloquent points.
Never mind; this was a performance built on utmost patience and control, and amazing, cherished trust between orchestra and conductor. And the Prom audience, including many charabanc’d members of the CBSO supporters’ club and bigwigs from Symphony Hall, responded with a huge ovation.
We had begun with a fizzing Glinka ‘Ruslan and Ludmila’ Overture (I could see the strings doing wonderful things, but not hearing them so easily in this thumping acoustic), and an enthralling UK premiere of Emily Howard’s ‘Calculus of the Nervous System’, an exploration of the early 19th-century’s Ada Lovelace’s neural theories. This was brave in its demands upon concentration and well-judged silences, within which sudden pulsing outbursts burst into our awareness like shocks from primitive electrical experiments.
And to think that the CBSO and Andris Nelsons were to turn from these demands to those even greater ones of Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony only two days later.