November 25, 2015


Shostakovich: The Complete Symphonies. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. Naxos. $99.99 (11 CDs).

     Back in 2002, when Naxos was still producing its “White Box” releases of complete series of various composers’ music, the company brought out a complete set of Shostakovich’s symphonies that had been recorded from 1986 to 1991 by the Czecho-Slovak Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ladislav Slovák. It was a good set, with some interesting instrumental touches and reasonably fine although scarcely outstanding orchestral playing. It cannot, however, hold a proverbial candle to the new Naxos complete-Shostakovich-symphonies release featuring the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. This one is a gem, a set of outstanding readings of difficult music in which conductor and orchestra are fully involved and the musicians play nearly at the level of a first-rate Russian orchestra – a huge accomplishment in this repertoire.

     True, the actual presentation of this set is less than stellar: each CD originally issued in its own case is now slipped into a cardboard sleeve and placed within an outer cardboard sleeve (not a box), making it all too easy for individual discs to fall out. And the 56-page booklet, shorter than the 74-page one in the Slovák set, is in tiny type that is difficult to read – although, on the plus side, it contains a number of short but excellent comments by Petrenko on his views of the symphonies.

     The reason to buy the new set, though, has nothing to do with its physical presentation and everything to do with the quality of the music-making. That is simply outstanding. The performances here were recorded between April 2008 and September 2013, and all of them are equally masterful in their understanding of the music and Petrenko’s ability to communicate what he knows and feels about it. Shostakovich’s First Symphony, begun when the composer was 18 and first played in 1926, when he was 20, is a great deal more than a school work – although it is that, having been started at the Leningrad Conservatoire.  The work, especially its highly innovative first movement, already shows the sardonic humor, cleverness of instrumentation, and harmonic and rhythmic intensity that would mark all 15 of these symphonies, and Petrenko brings out all those elements effectively. In contrast, the overblown and self-consciously modernistic No. 2, known as “To October,” is a work written for the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution; it concludes with a Communist-party-approved final choral section whose words are so bad that the composer himself expressed disdain for what he was setting. Yet Petrenko does about as fine a job with “To October” as a conductor can, playing up the dissonances and compositional extremes (which now seem quite dated) of the work’s first two movements, then taking the choral finale at an appropriately dignified tempo and making it as straightforward as the Soviet authorities no doubt wanted it to be.

     Petrenko’s handling of Symphony No. 3 brings out the stylistic elements of the work that clearly reflect Shostakovich’s personality, which was never entirely subsumed beneath revolutionary rhetoric (a fact that later caused the composer considerable difficulty).  Petrenko’s Third has much of the same brashness and youthful spirit as the First, written three years earlier; and even though the title “The First of May” makes it clear that this symphony is intended to celebrate the “workers’ holiday,” the music itself never makes that connection until the final tacked-on choral section to words by Semyon Kirsanov. Petrenko’s readings of the first three symphonies convey a telling and fascinating picture of a young composer just starting to come to terms with himself and with the political system around him.

     Matters are quite different with Symphony No. 4, in which Shostakovich finds his own voice and uses it to exceptional effect. Petrenko’s sure-handed, thoughtful and emotionally wrenching performance shows this huge work, lasting more than an hour, to be a strange one, with two very long and complex outer movements of nearly equal length framing a short, eerie central one. The Fourth sprawls and can easily spiral out of control, but Petrenko knows the score so well and holds onto it so firmly that it here attains tremendous grandeur as well as considerable emotional punch. The Fourth is highly personal, rhythmically and chromatically difficult, longer than its predecessors and successor, and a stretch both formally (the first movement’s sonata form is barely perceptible) and structurally (between the finale’s funeral march and its bleak ending, the entire movement seems to grow organically). Listeners who go through this complete cycle in the order in which the symphonies were written (which is not the order in which they were recorded or in which they appear on the CDs) will by this time notice how adept the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra is at giving Petrenko just what he wants. Even if the orchestra’s massed strings are somewhat less lush than would be ideal for the music, the balance of orchestral sections is so good and the careful attention to phrasing and rhythm so impressive that the ensemble seems to have internalized Shostakovich almost as thoroughly as has Petrenko himself.

     The attention that Petrenko gives to the quiet passages of the well-known Symphony No. 5 is unusual and is a significant strength of his interpretation. The approach would seem to make more sense in, say, Mahler, than in Shostakovich, who often comes across with all the subtlety of a battering ram. But Petrenko finds subtleties here that most other conductors miss or gloss over, such as the solo violin passages. Because Petrenko is at such pains to get the details and quiet passages of the symphony right, the more bombastic – and simply louder – music comes off far better as well. Thus, the problematic finale of No. 5 starts with speed and triumphalism, but by the last section – which Petrenko, like some other conductors, takes quite slowly – there is an ambiguity about the movement that fits well with current thinking that this work was less a celebration of Socialist Realism than a necessary accommodation to it.

     In Symphony No. 6, Petrenko makes the most of the work’s very unusual structure: 20 of its 33 minutes belong to the opening Largo, a movement of very grand scale indeed, and one that pulsates with intensity in this heartfelt reading. Warm, emotional, thoughtful and tense, the movement pulls listeners into one of Shostakovich’s most interesting sound worlds – which then switches quite abruptly into the contrasting second movement and a finale that the composer particularly liked but that barely seems related to what has gone before. This is an odd and gripping symphony that Petrenko and the orchestra handle particularly well.

     A conductor who can make Shostakovich’s vast, sometimes vulgar Seventh Symphony as moving and impressive as Petrenko makes it has an understanding of this music at the absolutely highest level. Petrenko makes 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. 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 movement 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 and is about as elegantly paced and structured a performance as this work is likely to receive.

     The Eighth is excellent, too. It is more complex structurally than the Seventh – among other things, its fourth movement is the composer’s first orchestral passacaglia – but is every bit as subject to bombast and overstatement if a conductor does not control it carefully.  Petrenko maintains firm control of the music throughout. From the start, when the orchestra’s lower strings growl with burnished darkness, it is clear that Petrenko has taken the measure of this music and found a way to communicate its depths to the players. There is tremendous drama and vitality here – the symphony’s moods shift frequently, and there is conflict aplenty, but in the end there is positive affirmation instead of the rather wan hope offered in an almost obligatory way in its predecessor (which, to be sure, was written in darker days of World War II). As the Eighth progresses, Petrenko handles each movement on its individual terms while maintaining a solid overview of the entire work. The second-movement Allegretto is filled with rudeness and crudity – but there are also flashes of elegance, notably in the high winds. The third movement is astonishing, perhaps the best ever recorded. It is raucous to the point of vulgarity: a nonstop clatter of screeching winds, pounding timpani and cutting trumpets atop snare-drum exclamations. It is so intense that the contrast with the fourth-movement Largo is even starker than usual. This movement is sweet, restrained and very moving – and leads directly into a finale that features a whimsical bassoon early on, but soon becomes so intense (and loud) that it is nearly overwhelming. But Petrenko shapes this concluding Allegretto carefully, allowing it to blare but making sure there is something ineffable about its quiet coda.

     As for the much shorter and in some ways very strange No. 9, here Petrenko makes sure that the work’s classical balance and sardonic modernism exist in an uneasy melding – witness, among many examples, the piccolo tune in the first movement. Here as in No. 5, Petrenko focuses to an unusual degree on quiet passages, resulting in an exceptionally carefully considered view of the work as a whole. But this is not to say that he is unwilling to take chances. Especially impressive is the quicksilver flashiness of the third movement – here taken at a true Presto, which is how it is marked but which is a tempo that conductors rarely attempt for it. The orchestra comes through remarkably well here, with this and other touches resulting in a symphony that keeps listeners slightly off-balance in a very engaging and thought-provoking way.

     Shostakovich expanded his symphonic scale again with his Tenth, and again Petrenko proves quite equal to the work’s interpretative demands. Symphony No. 10 is a complex and difficult work, filled with personal elements (including the very prominent D-S-C-H motto representing the composer’s initials) but also clearly striving to depict societal concerns in the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin – and doing so in such a way as to avoid having the composer again run afoul of the censors and apparatchiks (who did not know quite what to make of this symphony). The huge first movement is not so much dark as bleak, having a little of the flavor of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 4 even though constructed on entirely different principles and on a different scale. The thoughtfulness of some themes is contrasted with the deliberate dullness of others, and just when it seems there will be some rhythmic uplift, as in a waltz-like treatment of the second theme, the composer quickly snuffs out any sense of bounce or joviality. Petrenko paces this movement broadly, bringing out its internal contrasts – and contradictions – to very fine effect. Then he throws everything at the second movement, which is one of Shostakovich’s shortest at barely four minutes but also one of the composer’s most intense – violent, explosive, dramatic and very tense. And then come the third and fourth movements, in both of which the D-S-C-H motto is featured and in one of which (the fourth) it is played against the notes E-A-E-D-A, representing a pianist with whom Shostakovich had an intense correspondence during the symphony’s composition. The exact personal meanings of the uses of these mottos are impossible to fathom and, in truth, unnecessary to know, since Petrenko makes the symphony work so well on a purely musical level – quite independently of any personal subtext. The changing rhythms and tempos, the orchestration that ranges from oboe and bassoon solos to clattering percussion, the themes that emerge and combine, conflict and subside, and then emerge again – Petrenko pays attention to all these elements, and the orchestra explores them with style and sensitivity, producing a highly impressive reading of a work whose depths remain difficult, if not impossible, to plumb.

     The first release in Petrenko’s Shostakovich cycle was that of Symphony No. 11 – a rather odd choice. The Eleventh is  a commemoration of the 1905 “Bloody Sunday” massacre of demonstrators by Czarist forces: a four-movement, hour-long work that is played straight through, with each of the first three movements leading directly into the succeeding one.  Petrenko gives the work an outstanding performance in which the symphony rises far above its propaganda value (its primary use to the Soviet regime under which it was composed). Petrenko makes it a work of high drama, and while its full effect requires understanding the events on which it is based, it is emotionally involving from start to finish in Petrenko’s interpretation – even for listeners unfamiliar with the history it interprets. Among highlights here are the excellent playing of the timpani, the juxtapositions of consonance and dissonance, the long line of the revolutionary song “You Fell as Victims” on which the third movement is based, and the multiple thematic transformations that drive the work. The high drama of this piece, its brass-driven intensity, its (admittedly somewhat overdone) emotionalism, and its powerful conclusion filled with bell strokes add up in Petrenko’s performance to a viscerally involving experience.

     Soviet triumphalism comes off less well in Symphony No. 12, “The Year 1917,” of which even the composer did not think all that much. Shostakovich is not at his best here. A celebration of events of the Bolshevik Revolution, in four movements played continuously, the Twelfth is a work of somewhat surprising classical balance (which Petrenko brings out nicely), but one that ultimately seems not to have much to say – climaxing as it does in bombast that one would wish to see as ironic or deliberately overstated but that the composer, who had previously been quite chastened by run-ins with Soviet authorities, may well have meant sincerely.

     The contrast with Symphony No. 13 is extreme. This is a vocal work so tightly knit into symphonic form that it is nearly impossible to say at which point one shades into the other. In No. 13, known as “Babi Yar” for the poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko that is the basis of the first movement, Petrenko conducts a work that sounds like the sort of symphony Mussorgsky would have written if he had worked in the form. The rumbling, growling bass of Alexander Vinogradov and the full-throated men’s voices from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and the Huddersfield Choral Society produce, in their back-and-forth antiphonies and their combined power, a paean and challenge to the Russia of 1962, when this symphony was written and had its première. Petrenko paces the work magnificently, the expansiveness of the “Babi Yar” movement standing in striking contrast to the following scherzo on humor, and the three final movements, played attacca, building relentlessly from the drudgery of everyday Soviet life to an affirmation of individual power and accomplishment – a progression that still resonates deeply but that was surely very uncomfortable for Soviet authorities even in the comparative openness of Khrushchev’s rule. Petrenko does an excellent job of keeping the vocal elements in the forefront most of the time, while allowing the purely orchestral ones to weave in and out among the voices and enhance or comment upon the words. By the time the symphony fades into silence, looking forward as it does so to the conclusion of Shostakovich’s final symphony, No. 15, Petrenko has taken the full measure of this work and shown how much more it is than its “Babi Yar” title indicates.

     Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 is closer to a Mahler song cycle than any of the composer’s other symphonies, but without the structural unity that Mahler brought to, say, Das Lied von der Erde. Shostakovich here sets 11 poems about death, considering the end of life from many perspectives – from the legendary (“Lorelei”) to the highly personal (“At the Santé Prison”). Petrenko’s soloists are particularly well-suited to the music, with Gal James’ slightly shrill soprano fitting the texts well and the deep, resonant baritone of Alexander Vinogradov slipping warmly and firmly into the music from start to finish. But what Petrenko does that sets his reading of this symphony on such a high plane is to regard the work as a true symphony, accepting the groupings of poems as being, in effect, symphonic movements, and bringing out very cleanly the elements that appear here and are clearly symphonic in Shostakovich’s non-vocal works – the very beginning of “On Watch,” for example. This is a deeply pessimistic work by most standards, but Petrenko has an interesting way of drawing some level of comfort from it – not the comfort of some sort of life after death (in which Shostakovich did not believe), but an affirmation of the essential humanity of all people, united through their inevitable facing of death in some way and at some time. The performance is a well-organized and deeply moving one.

     And then we have Shostakovich’s final symphony, No. 15, yet another that deserves the adjective “odd.” Shostakovich looked back to earlier music with considerable piquancy here: this symphony contains snippets of everything from Rossini’s William Tell to Wagner’s Ring cycle and Shostakovich’s own previous works.  Petrenko presents the Fifteenth in a very carefully balanced reading that highlights Shostakovich’s elegant (and sometimes strange) instrumentation, brings forth the various quotations without making them seem to be the primary point of the work, and turns this eccentric final symphony into a work of elegance and poise through his handling of the passacaglia in the final movement – the passacaglia being itself a significant nod to the musical forms of the past. This collection of Petrenko’s performances deserves to be in the hands of all lovers of Shostakovich’s symphonies. It is a cycle that takes many chances, succeeds with almost all of them, and delivers an overall impression of eloquence and understanding throughout – plus exceptionally fine orchestral playing at the behest of an absolutely first-rate interpreter of Shostakovich’s complex, sometimes self-contradictory and often difficult music.

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