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 Recording of the Week  Shostakovich Symphonies from Petrenko and the RLPO

Vasily Petrenko’s Complete Shostakovich cycle with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra has just reached the seventh of a projected eleven volumes. The cycle is quickly emerging as one of the finest on disc, and has already picked up a Gramophone Award along with almost universal praise from critics all over the world.

Vasily Petrenko
Vasily Petrenko

Symphonies Nos. 2 and 15 are hugely contrasting works from opposite ends of the composer’s life and career – the former being written in 1927 when the composer was just 20 years old, and the latter in 1971, just four years before his death.

I didn’t really know the Second Symphony at all well. Like the Third, Shostakovich later rejected it as ‘unsatisfactory’ and these days it tends to only get programmed or recorded as part of a complete symphony cycle. Commissioned by the so-called ‘Department of Enlightenment’ to mark the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik October Revolution, Shostakovich was told to incorporate a choral finale with a text praising Lenin and the Revolution. Although experimental in structure and style, there are some powerful moments, and the orchestra and choir give fine and committed performances.

The Fifteenth Symphony is an altogether much more powerful work, although again not without its puzzles. Rossini and Wagner are both quoted as well as passages from his own earlier works. This was unusual for him, and I haven’t yet read or heard a convincing argument explaining exactly what he was trying to express in this symphony by doing so. Shostakovich was already suffering from the illness which would ultimately take his life, and it seems likely that he wrote this symphony knowing it would probably be his last. In a recent interview with Edward Seckerson of The Independent Petrenko said he felt that this Symphony had some element of how Shostakovich wanted to be remembered in it, and that perhaps explains the optimism, gusto, wit and playfulness which he maybe feared he otherwise might not be associated with.

Petrenko keeps tempos moving throughout (even in the long adagio last movement), thus making a lot less of the areas of darkness in the score than some other conductors. It works well in my view, as although musically very approachable and full of graceful tunes this symphony is a puzzle to really understand and I’ve never been convinced that lingering on the composer’s despair and suffering angle really helps that understanding much.

The orchestra play with all the refinement, discipline and intense commitment that has characterised this whole series. We hear every detail of the composer’s scores while colours and atmospheres have an incredible range and contrast. From the finesse shown in the shimmering and subdued opening of the Second Symphony to the vigour and excitement elsewhere this is impressive playing. A mention also for the superb solos from the RLPO principals, and in particular Principal Cellist Jonathan Aasgaard whose playing in the second movement of the Fifteenth Symphony is both beautiful and deeply haunting.

Highly recommended.

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 15

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC