Go big or go home. The mighty Philadelphia Orchestra swept into the Music Center at Strathmore on Tuesday night and delivered the most titanic of its recent performances in Washington: a fearless, take-no-prisoners account of Shostakovich’s epic Seventh Symphony led by conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Known as the “Leningrad,” the Seventh Symphony is a massive work that famously poses more interpretive questions for listeners than for its performers. After its historic premiere in wartime conditions in 1942, the symphony rode a wave of patriotic fervor, but it was torn apart by many Western critics for its supposedly dumbed-down and overinflated rhetoric. Even after settling into the repertory, the Seventh remains a work whose value and “meaning” (is it anti-Hitler, or secretly anti-Stalin?) are still ferociously contested in an academic field more treacherous than the Eastern Front.
In Tuesday’s performance though, presented by Washington Performing Arts, the Seventh emerged, more than anything, as a testament to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s near-peerless virtuosity and the electrifying leadership of its music director. Over the course of 80 gripping minutes, Nézet-Séguin explored Shostakovich’s dynamic and expressive extremes, drawing fiercely disciplined and committed playing. Yet for all the polish on display, there was an edginess and white-hot intensity to the orchestra’s sound that suited Shostakovich just right.
Nézet-Séguin gave coherence and shape to this ungainly symphony but never shied away from its disquieting and ironic disjunctures: the meandering woodwind lines, shrieking interjections, violent gallops and carnivalesque flights of fancy. In the infamous “invasion” passage in the first movement, Nézet-Séguin created a sense of steely and inexorable dread, fully embracing the grotesque and intentional banality of the musical theme that conductor Yevgeniy Mravinsky called a “universalized image of stupidity and crass tastelessness.”
The slow movement belonged to the magnificent strings, whose impassioned and plaintive lines Nézet-Séguin sculpted without his baton, a la Leopold Stokowski. The supersize brass section drove the finale to its overwhelming conclusion, offering a powerful vision of triumph undergirded by darkness and struggle. As the audience leaped to its feet, Nézet-Séguin warmly embraced his concertmaster, David Kim, before singling out practically the entirety of the orchestra’s winds and brass for richly deserved ovations.