With its eleventh release Vasily Petrenko’s Shostakovich symphony
cycle reaches its conclusion. If I recall correctly the series began with
the Eleventh Symphony, recorded in 2008 and issued the following year.
I don’t know whether the Thirteenth has been held back deliberately
but it’s a fine way to end the cycle because over the years, as
I’ve got to know it, I’ve come to believe that this is one
of Shostakovich’s most profound symphonic utterances.
The symphony sets five poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (b. 1932), one of
which, ‘Fears’, was written at Shostakovich’s specific
request to form part of the symphony; it forms the fourth movement of
the symphony. The symphony courted controversy from the start because
the Soviet authorities took exception to some of the sentiments expressed
by Yevtushenko in the poem ‘Babi Yar’, which was the poem
that initially fired Shostakovich’s imagination. Here Yevtushenko
condemned anti-Semitism in Russia and after the first few performances
he came under strong pressure to make some modifications to the text;
even when those were made the symphony was cold-shouldered by Soviet officialdom
for some years. I learned from the booklet that the UK première of the
symphony was given in 1971 by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
under the ever-enterprising Sir Charles Groves. The late John Shirley-Quirk
was the soloist. It’s good, therefore, to find the orchestra recording
the symphony over forty years later.
The work’s first, courageous champion was Kirill Kondrashin, who
conducted the premiere, so a recording by him was the obvious choice to
compare with this Liverpudlian newcomer. I deliberately chose not to make
comparisons with the Kondrashin reading that I reviewed
not long ago since that is, apparently, a live performance whereas this
Petrenko recording was made under studio conditions. Instead I’ve
gone back to Kondrashin’s 1967 Melodiya studio recording –
Richard Whitehouse gives the date as 1965 in his excellent notes but 1967
is the date on my Melodiya copy. This was the first recording of the work
and Kondrashin’s soloist was Artur Eizen (1927-2008). Also taking
part were the Bass Group of the Russian State Choral Chapel and the Moscow
Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra (review
What has struck me in comparing these two recordings by Kondrashin and
Petrenko is that though they are different I wouldn’t wish to say
that one is ‘better’ than the other, save in two respects:
Petrenko has the better orchestra and, perhaps unsurprisingly, his performance
is conveyed in better sound.
I heard the first movement of this new Petrenko performance a little while
ago in the MusicWeb
and I was impressed. Further listening at home has
confirmed that initial impression. Petrenko paces the opening well –
Kondrashin is slightly more measured at first but, unlike Petrenko, soon
speeds up a bit. Alexander Vinogradov, who impressed me in Petrenko’s
recording of the Fourteenth Symphony (review
is again a fine soloist. My only concern comes at 4:14 where the chorus
sings of blood spattered on the floor. Here the tempo increases but it
seems to me that Petrenko accelerates too much. Kondrashin is steadier
and thereby conveys more menace, though I have to say that Petrenko’s
speed allows his men to sound like hectoring bullies, which is not inappropriate.
A little later (5:56) the soloist resumes (‘O my Russian people…’).
Here Vinogradov and the orchestra convey real sadness – and Petrenko
has prepared for the passage very well. Eizen’s larger voice is
less confessional here though his singing offers a different kind of intensity.
Subsequently I like the way Vinogradov lightens his voice for the Anna
Frank episode. Eizen hasn’t really got the type of voice for that
effect; instead he and Kondrashin make their mark through swifter pacing
of the passage, which is also effective. Petrenko is excellent in the
sinister passage that begins ‘Someone’s coming’ (8:30),
which is hushed and menacing at first – Kondrashin isn’t quite
as imaginative here – and the colossal climax that follows is absolutely
tremendous in its power. Here the RLPO brass are unleashed – though
they don’t over-blow – while the percussion is awesomely reported.
In the Kondrashin recording the less refined Melodiya sound and the natural
timbre of the Moscow Philharmonic, 1960s vintage, conspire to produce
a strident, massive climax which, though more raw than what’s produced
in Liverpool, is terrifyingly authentic.
The second movement, ‘Humour’ provides an interesting contrast
between the two conductors. Kondrashin’s performance sounds brash
– that’s not
a criticism in this music - and Eizen
is bitingly sardonic, relishing the words and delivering them in a highly
characterful way. He commands
the scene and the Russian choir
is very vital here. Petrenko’s pacing is rather faster and while
he invests the music with great vigour and energy I think that his speed
doesn’t allow his singers to inject quite so much irony and such
precise articulation into the words. Despite this there’s still
a lot of punch and sarcasm in the performance but I think the raw invective
of Kondrashin’s performance carries the day here.
The last three movements are played without a break. In ‘In the
Store’ Shostakovich and Yevtushenko conjure up a bleak, glacial
vision of the hard, draining, demanding lifestyle of Soviet women. As
portrayed here it was a life of unremitting drudgery and hardship, devoid
of cheer and involving much manual labour and a poor diet. Petrenko is
daringly slow, rather more measured than Kondrashin, and right from the
start the music is chill and oppressive. The orchestra supports him superbly
while the singers convey the stoic mood most acutely. Vinogradov is excellent
– I greatly admire his mezza voce
delivery of the stanza
that begins ‘They wait quietly’. So consistently chilly is
the atmosphere of the performance that the effect of the outraged climax
(9:41) is all the greater. Eizen is very expressive and intense in the
Kondrashin performance and his bigger voice means that he delivers the
music in a different way to Vinogradov – though Vinogradov’s
approach is no less valid. Kondrashin’s choir, which is the more
forwardly recorded of the two, is magnificently sonorous at times, especially
when singing quietly. I find Kondrashin’s performance disturbing
and chilling but Petrenko, in a different way, also suggests powerfully
the hopeless grind of daily life in Soviet Russia and his more measured
speed is an asset, I think.
‘Fears’ begins quietly and balefully. The ominous, hushed
opening is very well done by the RLPO and the important tuba solo is much
better integrated than Kondrashin’s player manages – he’s
neither as controlled nor subtle as his Liverpool counterpart. However,
the raw, less homogenised sound of the Moscow Philharmonic does heighten
the air of menace. Once again Vinogradov’s contribution is very
fine and the orchestral accompaniment is etched very precisely. Petrenko’s
choir almost whispers the first line of the last stanza – ‘Fears
are dying out in Russia’ (9:08) – a point not made as effectively
by Kondrashin’s choir.
The RLPO achieves great delicacy in the opening to ‘A Career’;
this is another example of the greater finesse of Petrenko’s orchestra.
Ostensibly the tone of this movement is a little lighter compared with
what’s gone before but, as so often with this composer, you can
sense that there are darker undercurrents not far below the surface. The
music is well characterised by Vinogradov and at the start of the last
stanza – ‘All those who strove towards the stratosphere’
– he displays fine depth of tone and an excellent legato. In the
subdued closing pages (from 10:25) the RLPO play with great refinement.
Neither the Moscow Philharmonic nor the Melodiya engineers can match that
quality. In any case I’m not sure that Kondrashin seeks to play
the close of the symphony in quite so subdued a fashion.
This is a very fine performance indeed by Vasily Petremko and his Liverpool
forces – not forgetting the gentlemen from Huddersfield. The choral
contribution is very fine indeed, giving the lie to the idea that only
Russian or Eastern European singers have the right kind of timbre for
this sort of music. It’s true that Kondrashin’s Russian choir
brings a unique and very imposing Slavic sound to the music but the British
singers are by no means put in the shade. The Moscow Philharmonic plays
with great commitment for Kondrashin but there’s greater finesse
to be heard on Merseyside and when it’s necessary to turn on the
power the RLPO isn’t found wanting. Both soloists are excellent
in their different ways. Eizen is totally commanding and his singing has
a truly authentic sound to it. He characterises the music very strongly
and the word I’d use about his contribution overall is ‘presence’.
Vinogradov approaches the score in a different, less rhetorical way but
his style brings its own rewards. He’s very responsive to the texts
and I was seriously impressed by his performance. Kondrashin has a special
authority in this score and he gives a performance that is often visceral
but also full of insights. No admirer of Shostakovich should miss hearing
him in this work. Petrenko has plenty of strength but also a good deal
of finesse. He has an excellent feel for the score, which he paces well.
The Naxos sound is very good; indeed, it’s among the best in this
series. When I first heard the recording in the Listening Studio I thought
the choir had been recorded a little too distantly. I’ve revised
that opinion since hearing the disc on my own equipment; there’s
just the right amount of distance to give a sense of the space of the
hall. The orchestra has been recorded very well indeed: the brass has
ample presence, the percussion sounds thrilling, and while the climaxes
resound with great power the many soft passages are ideally recorded.
Richard Whitehouse’s notes have been a very good guide throughout
this series and that’s the case here as well. Bravo to Naxos for
providing the transliterated texts and English translations in the booklet,
not something that can be taken for granted these days.
This, then, is the end of the Petrenko Shostakovich cycle. I’ve
heard all the recordings and I think it’s a pretty substantial achievement.
One or two of the performances have been slightly less good than the others
but overall the standard has been very high. In general I’ve found
Vasily Petrenko a reliable guide, though it’s important to say that
some commentators have expressed reservations. Whatever one may feel about
the interpretations I hope no one would dispute that the RLPO has performed
with distinction throughout.
Petrenko’s way with Shostakovich isn’t the only way as my
comparisons concerning just this symphony may indicate but anyone wishing
to explore these important scores, especially the less familiar ones,
will find these versions a reliable guide which may inspire you to hear
the likes of Kondrashin and Mravinsky in these works. What these Petrenko
recordings confirm above everything else is that the fifteen symphonies
of Dmitry Shostakovich are a crucial contribution to the symphonic literature
of the twentieth century.
And another review ...
Petrenko's direction of this music is thought-provoking. I had to listen twice before settling to his cool and analytical approach. The end result is no less valid but it does seem more a calculated than a subjective view. In the eponymous first movement the contrast between the slow music and the violent interruptions that punctuate it are extreme, appropriately so in this most extreme music. The men's voices of the RLPO chorus and the Huddersfield CS cope well with their important role. They are audibly not Russian basses, the weight is not there and one assumes few are Russian speakers. Even so there is conviction in their performance pointing to excellent rehearsal by both Petrenko and the respective chorus-masters. This movement particularly contains some of the most powerfully turbulent music Shostakovich ever wrote. The orchestra, though one suspects the string body may be smaller than that of the better financed major international orchestras, plays with precision and power. Alexander Vinogradov is an excellent bass and sings Yevtushenko's politically inflammatory text with passion and splendid attack. The second movement, Humour
is taken very fast. Singer and orchestra rise brilliantly to Petrenko's demands, particularly the strings. There is real bounce to the rhythms which does much to emphasize the ironic words. This is 'humour' indeed.
In the store
is a large-scale adagio
written in praise of the stoicism of Russian women: the curiously unlikely scenario of a food market queue becomes a moving statement of faith in survival and a cry against people who would try to cheat those who just 'wait quietly' for their share. Vinogradov shows his power to float an unbroken line over the quiet and relentless orchestral tread. The furious outburst at the words 'It is shameful to short-change them' near the end of the movement gains that much more impact for following such restraint. Fears
follows without a break. Shostakovich clearly references the sounds of Wagner's orchestra in Siegfried
Act II when Siegfried awaits the appearance of the dragon from the dark of the cave. The words go on to tell of the disappearance of one set of fears, only to be replaced by new ones. Yevtushenko's implied criticisms are thinly disguised. Shostakovich's music is illustrative of all this; it writhes away in the lower strings gathering energy. Here the words in the booklet really do need following. Petrenko maintains extreme tension during these two long movements, over a third of the entire symphony. The finale A Career
also follows without a break. The references to the careers of those who knew the truth but were afraid to speak, and those who spoke out and suffered for it, are contrasted, sometimes with violent and passionate outbursts, but mostly quietly. Yevtushenko wishes for a career that conceals the fact that one follows one's own course. Shostakovich chooses not to end this with any triumph, instead his orchestra subsides into silence closing with a single quiet note on the bell.
Hearing this very fine performance sent me in pursuit of other views of the work. Where Petrenko is crisp and precise, Rudolph Barshai and Dmitri Kitaenko, for example, are weighty and never seem to relax. Haitink conducted one of his very finest recorded performances of this work, a vast and grey account with the mighty Concertgebouw strings showing the greatest strength. Babi Yar
demands and usually gets, absolute commitment. This Naxos CD becomes the eleventh recording in my collection and it holds its head high. No classical collector should be without this masterpiece, and Petrenko's version is up there with the best.
This completes Petrenko's very successful Shostakovich Symphony cycle. As always with Naxos, there are excellent, well researched notes. The sound is clean and allows orchestral detail through, even in the most strenuous passages. The Philharmonic Hall lends a nice spaciousness to proceedings. The volume needs to be set fairly high for the quietest passages to register.