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.