Wednesday 22 May 2013

An impressive Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony from Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in a cycle from Naxos that looks on track to be one of the finest yet recorded

Recording a complete cycle of the Shostakovich symphonies that beats all comers is always going to be an elusive aim. My own preference until now has been for Kondrashin’s fabulous complete cycle on Melodiya with surprisingly good sound from these 1960’s and 1970’s Soviet recordings. There are, of course, a number of more modern cycles of the symphonies but they have been variable.

There is still a gap for a modern set of the complete symphonies that excels in all of the symphonies in first rate recordings, something which the Russian conductor, Vasily Petrenko aims to fill. So far Petrenko’s performances, recorded by Naxos , have been impressive with excellent recorded sound. Naxos has just released the eighth disc in their eleven CD cycle of the symphonies with the Symphony No.7 “Leningrad”, Opus 60 (1941).

Petrenko hasn’t had the advantage that conductors such as Mravinsky, Kondrashin or Barshai have had of having working with the composer but this hasn’t always been an assurance of a great performance. Naxos’ seemingly inspired choice of Ladislav Slovák, who had met Shostakovich at rehearsals during a stay at Leningrad, where he studied under the great Russian conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky, for their first complete cycle of the symphonies, mainly disappointed.

Shostakovich’s Seventh has often come in for adverse criticism, mainly due to the repeated march theme of the first movement, a theme caricatured by Bartok in his Concerto for Orchestra. Yet Shostakovich was intensely moved by the circumstances of the work’s creation. When Nazi Germany attacked Russia in June 1941, the composer was in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) . During the ensuing siege of Leningrad, Shostakovich worked feverishly on the new symphony saying ‘The music surged out of me, I could not hold it back.’ He rejected all proposals of a move to Moscow, wishing to remain in his native city to the end. It was only when ordered to leave, at the end of September 1941, that he reluctantly did so, having already written three of the four movements of the symphony.

Shortly after arriving in Moscow, Shostakovich spoke to his biographer, David Rabinovich, about some of the emotions that he had experienced in beleaguered Leningrad. From this conversation it became clear what it was that inspired him to write much of this colossal work in so short a time. Speaking of his own determination to stay, he spoke of a friend who was to have left by the last train. He had said goodbye to his friends and took a last look at his beloved city before boarding the train. However, at the first small station in the suburbs he got out and walked back into the city despite the hunger, cold and potential death that awaited him.

Much has been written about the meaning behind Shostakovich’s symphonies. The composer related to Solomon Volkov, in the early 1970s, that ‘the majority of my symphonies are tombstones. Too many of our people died and were buried in places unknown to anyone, not even their relatives. It happened to many of my friends…’

Of the Seventh, Shostakovich related to Volkov ‘…war was all around. I had to be with the people, I wanted to create the image of our country at war, capture it in music…I have heard a lot of nonsense about the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies…’ He went on to say that the Seventh was about the ‘Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and Hitler merely finished off.’

Vasily Petrenko delivers a beautifully paced opening to the Allegretto, quite direct in approach, just as some of the great Russian interpreters of the past have been. But it is to the ensuing quiet, slow section that Petrenko brings much poetry, restrained and wistful. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra are on top form with some lovely sounds from the principal flute before the entry of the hushed pizzicato strings and side drum that announce the impending advance of evil forces.

Many who consider this part of the first movement banal will, perhaps, think again on hearing Petrenko’s superbly judged, finely balanced working out of Shostakovich’s theme. At times he delivers little conversations between the instruments to great effect. Whilst there is an unstoppable inevitability as the music builds, many details are nevertheless highlighted. It must be remembered that the theme lasts only just over twelve minutes out of the twenty eight that this performance of the first movement takes before it collapses in on itself in a terrific climax. Petrenko judges this climax and the ensuing intense calm perfectly.

The pensive moderato (poco allegretto) receives a nicely pointed opening before the plaintive oboe enters, Petrenko extracting so much subtle feeling from the orchestra. The central faster section has some lively, taut playing with Petrenko still keeping a rein on the tempo so that, when the music subsides, the slower tempo dovetails in beautifully. What sensitivity there is when the bassoon quietly enters against a hushed flute and harp.

In the Adagio, the opening woodwind and harp sound almost anguished in this performance. There is a spontaneous feeling from Petrenko at times, as he moves forward the string melody that follows. As the music falls, he obtains some exquisitely hushed sounds. The flutes are superb in the next section leading to an extended string section, surely one of Shostakovich’s loveliest melodies. The climax is terrific as it builds and, when it subsides, the elegiac viola melody is beautifully done.

Petrenko handles the quiet and pensive opening of the Allegro non troppo so well, full of subtleties. As the music slowly gains momentum there is lovely crisp playing from RLPO, particularly the strings. The whole ensemble of the RLPO is so tight. Again, when the music slows, Petrenko draws some superb playing, gentle, anguished and superbly hushed. As the music builds to a terrific final climax, there is such a feeling of completion and inevitability to this fine performance.

This is an impressive performance. The recording is excellent with full and open sound from Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall. With only the fourth, thirteenth and fourteenth symphonies still to be recorded, this cycle looks on track to be one of the finest yet recorded.

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