Shostakovich’s mighty Seventh Symphony is rarely played in the concert hall, not least because it requires over 100 musicians, and lasts around 75 minutes. It is also very loud. Tonight, several of the musicians can be seen putting in their ear plugs, no doubt aware of the success of a recent court judgement where a Royal Opera string musician won damages against Covent Garden, because of the impact of the brass in Wagner’s Ring Cycle on his hearing. Well, Wagner is quiet compared to Shostakovich’s Seventh!
The symphony is also perhaps the most political of all symphonies, composed to assist the people of Leningrad while under siege from the Nazis, and it was broadcast live and played over loudspeakers at the German troops. Leningrad was never taken by the Germans, and the Russians think that the playing of the Seventh was one reason why—ever since it has become known as the “Leningrad” Symphony.
This is Peter Oundjian’s second last concert before he ends his term as the RSNO’s principal conductor. It is clear from his speech before the concert that he sees this as part of his farewell. With eight double basses, twelve cellos, a huge brass section, and eight percussionists, the RSNO are prepared for war. From the mighty opening theme, it is clear that we are engaged in war, the driving force of the brass announcing the German invasion, backed up by the big percussion section. The huge string section evokes the response of the citizens, who eventually triumph in the fourth movement.
By the end, the audience and the musicians are exhausted, but it is a great experience. To quote the great Russian conductor, Semyon Bychkov, the Leningrad Symphony “was composed for humanity. And the best proof is that today we still need it, we are still listening to it.” Given the current state of UK and Russian relations, that is a very relevant point!
As the introduction to the concert, pianist Xiayin Wang plays Scriabin’s only piano concerto, which is a lovely melodic work. As Oundjian says, “Scriabin was a very strange man but he wrote beautiful music.” Wang is an old friend of the orchestra, and she is currently recording with them: another of Oundjian’s farewell acts with the orchestra. She plays the concerto beautifully, and we can look forward to the recording. It is a gentle introduction to the mighty Leningrad, although by the end of that shattering experience, we can barely recall it.