June 13, 2013


Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7, “Leningrad.” Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. Naxos. $9.99.

Bruckner: Symphony No. 2. Orchestre de la Suisse Romande conducted by Marek Janowski. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Mahler: Symphony No. 1, with “Blumine” movement. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. LPO. $16.99.

     A conductor who can make Shostakovich’s vast, vulgar Seventh Symphony as moving and impressive as Vasily Petrenko makes it has an understanding of this music at the absolutely highest level. Petrenko, whose ongoing Shostakovich cycle for Naxos has been consistently excellent, here surpasses even his own high standards by making this stepchild of Shostakovich’s maturity rise above the very specific occasion for which it was written – an occasion, the siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), that catapulted the work into international wartime prominence despite its manifest musical shortcomings. What a performance this is! The deliberately trivial first-movement theme representing the Nazi invasion, repeated and repeated for a full 11 straight minutes in the midst of a movement that lasts nearly half an hour, here makes absolutely perfect sense: Petrenko starts the theme so softly and distantly that it scarcely seems to be there at all, growing its power very gradually as it moves among sections of the orchestra, increasing its grotesquerie with such subtlety and care that it is impossible to say just when the silly little theme becomes genuinely threatening, even overpowering – although that is certainly what happens. Petrenko manages to make the whole symphony cohesive, which is a near impossibility. The second movement, an intermezzo rather than the usual Shostakovich scherzo, here offers respite but never full relaxation after the depredations of the first, while the third has warmth and emotional depth far beyond what it usually achieves in performance. The fact that the first three movements all end softly makes perfect sense here, as if everything fades out, no matter what has come before and no matter what listeners have experienced. This beautifully sets the stage for the triumphalism of the finale – and although Petrenko cannot make this movement stronger than it is (it is the weakest and most surface-level of the four), he attacks it with vigor and contrasts its insistent positivism with the more-nuanced and darker elements of the first three movements. This is a very expansive reading of the symphony – it barely fits on a single CD – and is about as elegantly paced and structured a performance as this work is likely to receive. And Petrenko here has the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra sounding, if not opulently rich like a great Russian orchestra, so full and warm that it reflects all the grandeur of Shostakovich’s vision while downplaying the symphony’s ragged and overdone elements.

     Marek Janowski has a similarly subtle approach to Bruckner’s Symphony No. 2, heard here in the new and very fine William Carragan edition of the 1877 version. Janowski plays the symphony somewhat against its type: in its first (1871-72) version, it was nicknamed “symphony of pauses” because of the many places where Bruckner stopped the music to provide a contrast of silence with his otherwise forceful instrumentation; and while many of the pauses disappeared in this later version, enough remained so that the work can sometimes sound halting. Not so under Janowski, who keeps it moving so strongly that when he does choose to emphasize a pause, the result is all the more striking. Also very effective, and quite surprising, is Janowski’s approach to the work’s third and fourth movements. The third is very slow, scarcely deserving of its designation as a scherzo and, indeed, sounding more akin to a Shostakovich intermezzo like that of the “Leningrad” Symphony than like a typical dancelike or lumbering ländler-influenced piece by Bruckner. What Janowski does here takes some getting used to – and turns out to make perfect sense by the time the movement’s Trio appears, marked Gleiches Tempo (“same tempo”). Now Janowski’s pacing works wonderfully, reflecting the same thoughtfulness and elegance of balance that he and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande bring to the symphony’s first two movements. But what becomes a real surprise is what happens at the conclusion of the scherzo: the finale is not just Mehr schnell, as marked, but very fast, so speedy that this very Schubertian symphony sounds as if it is about to go off-track, with neither lyricism nor expansiveness. But Janowski knows exactly what he is doing here as elsewhere, using the intensity of the finale’s opening to establish very pointed contrasts within the movement and to help build the finale, and the symphony as a whole, to a particularly big and strong conclusion that knits the whole work together considerably more tightly than is usual in this symphony. Janowski’s Bruckner cycle for PentaTone is almost complete – only the Fourth remains to be released – and has turned out to be a very thoughtful sequence, in which the conductor takes some unusual approaches that turn out very well indeed.

     Vladimir Jurowski’s Mahler First, a live LPO recording from December 2010, is unusual as well, since it includes the short “Blumine” movement that Mahler originally placed second in this symphony but soon dropped to create the four-movement work that is now so well-known. The occasional recordings containing “Blumine” help show why Mahler excised the movement: it is of considerably lighter weight than the other four and not especially symphonic in character. But a sensitively inclusive reading like Jurowski’s also shows why “Blumine” does belong in the symphony, and why the five-movement structure can be as valid as the four-movement one: “Blumine” provides respite after the broad and intense first movement (as similar movements do in the Second and Third Symphonies), and the inclusion of “Blumine” makes the sprawling finale more cohesive, because that movement contains “Blumine” echoes that Mahler did not remove when he took out the movement itself. Listeners will have differing opinions on whether the symphony “works” better with or without “Blumine,” but even those who prefer the four-movement version will find Jurowski’s treatment with the London Philharmonic Orchestra to be powerful, involving, well-paced and highly attentive to detail. Jurowski emphasizes the singing qualities that permeate the symphony, a number of whose themes come from Mahler’s earlier song cycles, and he balances the beauties of the work very well against its grotesque and intense elements. The approach works especially well in the episodic finale, which moves wavelike through an ebb and flow that eventually produce a highly forceful and thoroughly satisfying conclusion. Like the previous LPO release of Mahler with Jurowski and the London Philharmonic – that was Symphony No. 2, the “Resurrection” – this recording of the First has considerable drama and a fine sense of the music’s scope, coupled with first-rate orchestral playing. It is worth having not only because it contains “Blumine” but also because it is simply, by any standard, a very fine performance of the symphony.

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