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 Recording of the Week  Shostakovich 11 from the RLPO

There is something of a revolution going on at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO) under their young principal conductor Vasily Petrenko. I remember mentioning them last autumn in relation to a very fine Tchaikovsky Manfred Symphony they had just released. Well, now the same pair has embarked on a complete Shostakovich cycle for Naxos, (updating the label’s pretty average early 1990s recordings from Bratislava under Ladislav Slovak) and the first disc in that new cycle was released last month of the composer’s 11th Symphony (subtitled ‘The Year 1905’).

Vasily Petrenko
Vasily Petrenko

I think it is a pretty good place to start. Although it is fairly long and played without breaks, the musical imagery is very clear. As suggested by the subtitle, the symphony refers to different events of the Russian Revolution of 1905, from the glacial opening movement (The Palace Square), to the terrifying massacre and its aftermath (The Ninth of January), the funereal third movement (Eternal Memory) and the final movement (The Tocsin), which culminates with cataclysmic bell strokes. It uses several revolutionary songs dating back to that year and before and this would have given the symphony a closer connection to Russian audiences at the time. To modern ears who don’t recognise the appearances of the songs, their very presence ensures a stronger emphasis on tonality than in some of his other works, and probably makes it quite a good place for someone new to the composers’ symphonies to start.

The performance here from the RLPO under Petrenko is mightily impressive. I suppose it is one of the quicker recordings on record but it never sounds overly pushed and I would much prefer this approach to the over-indulgent approach you get from some conductors. There is real drama in this music and you hear that in the playing as well, while the slow movement is genuinely grief-stricken and bleak.

In the 1980s the CBSO carried out a remarkable transformation from ‘good’ to ‘world class’ under the leadership of a certain Simon Rattle. It seems that Vasily Petrenko has a similar transformation in mind for his orchestra. And on this evidence you wouldn’t want to bet against him.

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103 'The year 1905'

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC