As for the much-maligned Ninth, Petrenko again treats it as something it manifestly is, and more. It’s a lightweight piece of retro pastiche, a slap in the face for those who, remembering Beethoven, expected something extravagant from a symphony with this number, and also something grand and triumphal for a work premiered in 1945, the year of victory. It was actually banned in 1948 by the Soviet authorities, as was the altogether different, but perhaps also, in official eyes, insufficiently monumental Eighth.
PULLING OUT all THE STOPS
Yet the Eighth, dating from 1943, is a major piece by any standard — bleak, a war-time work expressing both conflict and a hatred of violence. The sparse opening, leading into a long crescendo, is followed by a slow movement, then a more strident third movement. But it’s the opening of the fourth movement that, in this version, will win all the prizes — sharp, hard-edged, and with the recording of demonstration quality. The pianissimo ending shows once again that fortes and pianissimos are Petrenko’s strongest points.
One thought refuses to go away — what happened to the Shostakovich cycle from Taiwan’s National Symphony Orchestra (NSO), of which the Eighth was one of the most impressive items? If any recording stays in my mind, even after hearing Petrenko’s version, it’s this one. If I had it to hand to make the comparison, I think I might even prefer it.
But it’s in the 10th, probably Shostakovich’s finest symphony, that Petrenko pulls out all the stops. This is an absolutely magnificent performance, worthy of all the awards Gramophone magazine heaped on it. You’ll probably never hear the famous depiction of Stalin in the second movement played with more ferocity. And the recording is crystal-clear, as with all the CDs in this evolving set.
If there’s another version of the 10th I enjoyed almost as much, it’s the one conducted by Eugene Ormandy with his Philadelphia Orchestra. Here you can experience the voluptuous sound Ormandy was famous for, but there’s a serious commitment to the musical content as well. I would have no argument with anyone who preferred this performance to Petrenko’s. All in all, though, Petrenko’s cycle is looking increasingly like the one to beat.