Few conductors have risen to fame as fast as Vasily Petrenko. He arrived at the UK’s Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in 2004 at the age of 28 and before long was embarking on recording a cycle of Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies. With most now in the bag, they have won plaudits on all sides, with the version of the Tenth being designated “Best Orchestral Recording of the Year” in 2011 by Gramophone magazine. Petrenko was also voted Best Male Artist in the Classic BRIT Awards in, astonishingly, both 2010 and 2012.
Shostakovich’s symphonies are by turns introspective, satirical, patriotic and grumpy. He lived in difficult times, to put it mildly, having to endure Stalin’s purges and World War II, plus alternating attempts by officialdom to castigate him and sell him abroad as a quintessential Soviet genius. His international reputation as a result oscillated in similar fashion. Once he was perceived as a dreary product of Soviet conformity, with many of his symphonies seen as on a par with poster art. Then, with the publication in 1979 of Solomon Volkov’s Testimony, purporting to be Shostakovich’s confirmation that he’d been a dissident all along, his works suddenly presented themselves in an altogether new light.
Today the dust from these disputes has largely settled, with the great man widely viewed as someone who chose to stay alive by adopting the role of enigmatic personality, albeit responding expansively to some national challenges, but kicking out from time to time when the pressures appeared to have lessened. He’s established, nonetheless, as a major 20th century talent. The symphonies are routinely performed and fairly widely admired. Even so, they remain difficult material.
Four CDs issued between 2009 and 2011 contain six of the symphonies with Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic: the First, Third, Fifth, Eighth, Ninth and 10th.
The First and Third symphonies needn’t detain us long. While the first has some admirers as a work that, with its echoes of Stravinsky, demonstrated the precocious talent of the 19-year-old composer, it nonetheless seems thin in texture and lacking the mastery soon to be evident. The Third, by contrast, has attracted very few devotees. It’s one of a group dedicated to significant dates in the USSR’s revolutionary ideology, a pattern abandoned by Shostakovich when he reached his Fifth Symphony, arguably his first real masterpiece in the form (though the Fourth has its passionate devotees).
Petrenko, however, implicitly makes a case for the Third. From the very start the approach is confident and masterly, though the meandering second movement proves more problematic. The First, you might think, doesn’t permit any orchestra to really shine. But the DVD version with Leonard Bernstein conducting a student orchestra [Medici Arts 2072158; reviewed in the Taipei Times Dec. 12, 2010] suggested the opposite, and is generally preferable even to this meticulous rendering by Petrenko.
The Fifth is the most often played of all Shostakovich’s symphonies. Two DVD versions, from Andre Previn and from Maxim Shostakovich (the composer’s son) were reviewed in the Taipei Times on Feb. 13, 2008, and both seemed admirable in their different ways. Petrenko comes up with a highly creditable reading that recognizes both the popularity of the work and its secret corners.
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.