Disc 6 of Valery Gergiev’s Shostakovich cycle contains the 2nd Violin Concerto and the Leningrad Symphony (#7). It was recorded in performance in February of 2014. The soloist was Alena Baeva. The violin concerto, written and first performed in 1967, was the last concerto composed by Shostakovich. It was dedicated, as was the 1st, to David Oistrakh, who gave the work its first performance. The work is not as flashy as the 1st, but it is just as difficult.

Written in C-sharp minor, its key makes the violin’s numerous double stops difficult to play. In fact, Oistrakh complained about its tonality. The work is austere and similar in style to the Sonata for Violin and Piano written in the following year. This final concerto require several hearings for the listener to realize its complexities and to appreciate its spartan beauty.

Alena Baeva

Alena Baeva was just shy of her 29th birthday when this performance was recorded. She played the concerto with the score in front of her indicating that she has yet to fully to learn what is a very complex work. Nevertheless, she gave a fine reading. Her playing was as striking as her good looks. She seems headed toward a major career. Written in three movements, here is the beginning of the 2nd movement (Adagio). Its somber eloquence is typical of the composer’s late works.

The Leningrad Symphony is one Shostakovich’s most performed works. What it is about is a matter of considerable controversy. It is commonly associated with the siege of Leningrad, but it was apparently started a year before the siege began. The famous march in the first movement is a combination of ‘Da geh’ ich zu Maxim,’ from Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow and and a theme from Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Whether Bartok was parodying Shostakovich or Lehar in the 4th movement of his Concerto for Orchestra is still uncertain.

The symphony may be about fascism, or Soviet terror, or Hitler, or Stalin, or God knows what – but it stands or does not on its musical merits. The work received its world premiere in Moscow. It was then widely played throughout the world.  Arturo Toscanini led the American premiere in a reading Shostakovich hated. Then the work fell out of favor as many critics described it as a hack job. A sure guide to its worth was the opinion of Pierre Boulez  who thought it “third-pressing Mahler.” Boulez is an infallible judge of musical worth. Learn his opinion and then go 180 degrees from it and you’re sure to be right. Verdi thought the only critic that counted was the audience. And the audience has given its verdict on this symphony. About a quarter of a century ago it started to be frequently performed. This frequency increases yearly.

Musically, it uses a very simple language which draws the audience into it. The march mentioned above is reminiscent of Ravel’s Bolero. Shostakovich was aware of the resemblance, but thought his musical needs required the march regardless of similarity. It is repeated twelve times, louder and more accented each time.The snare drum beats at an increased rate further reinforcing the resemblance to Bolero. The four movement work ends with a tremendous C major statement that is ironic and tragic. Earlier themes are recapitulated and the ending suggests that not only was Leningrad on fire, but so was and is the whole world. Leningrad Symphony finale

This symphony obviously means a lot to Gergiev and his Mariinsky Theater Orchestra which, of course, is based in Saint Petersburg  – the original name for what was Leningrad during the Soviet period. The orchestra give a taut rendition of this compelling work which when well performed always stirs its audience to the height of emotional involvement. As far as I’m concerned the Leningrad Symphony needs no defenders. It is a great work. One of the masterpieces of the 20th century.

The photo above the title is Karl Eliasberg conducting the Leningrad premiere of this symphony on 9 August 1942. Both the orchestra and the audience were starving. The siege of Leningrad lasted from 1941 to 1944