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Dmitry Shostakovitch
Symphony No. 13 ("Babi Yar") And 14
Alexander Vinogradov (bass), the male voices of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the Huddersfield Choral Society, VasilyPetrenko conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

Review By Max Westler

 

  Well, here it is, the first week in January, and here I am breaking my first New Year's resolution of the new year. Having reviewed a goodly sum of Shostakovitch recordings over the past several years, I had resolved to abstain for at least a year, maybe two. Then this new release presented itself and left me no choice but to speak up. For one thing, it marks the last installment in Vasily Petrenko's traversal of the complete symphonies with his Liverpool forces, and that certainly seems an achievement worth celebrating. But also, the sheer force and conviction of the performance made me realize at last that "Babi Yar" is one of the composer's greatest works in any form. If you, like me, have seriously underestimated this symphony (or don't know it at all), then this recording is required listening.

By September of 1941 the Germany armies had reached the city of Kiev. Less than five days later, they posted orders that all Jewish citizens gather at a central location, or be shot on sight. The thousands who showed up with their suitcases and what belongings they could carry assumed they were about to be deported. Instead they were marched to "Babi Yar," a ravine outside the city, stripped naked, then shot, bludgeoned to death, or (in the case of many children) buried alive. The massacre continued for five days. In the end, it is estimated that over a 100,000 Jews died. When the poet Yvgeny Yeutushenko visited the site twenty years later, he was appalled to find that no memorial had been erected to mark the tragedy. In fact official Soviet history barely acknowledged the event, and claimed that only Soviet citizens (and not Jews) had perished. This had also been said of the Holocaust. According to official history, only Soviet citizens (and not Jews) had died in the camps. These deliberate state-sponsored lies were intended to mask two very inconvenient truths: an unknown number of Ukranians had enthusiastically participated in the slaughter at Babi Yar. And, as those official accounts indirectly suggest, anti-Semitism was hardly a thing of the past in the Soviet Union.

The outraged poem Yeutushenko wrote in response to his visit to Kiev was the spark that ignited Shostakovitch's imagination. Eventually the composer chose three other poems to include in his projected symphony, and asked the poet to provide still another that eventually became the fourth movement ("Fears"). The completed work is one of the composer's most personal and courageous utterances. Having just given the cultural apparatchiks two symphonies that celebrated Bolshevik history (the 11th and the 12th), Shostakovitch was now ready to cast aside any concern for his personal safety and challenge the State directly. "Words are more effective than music," he said at the time. "When I combine words with music, it becomes difficult to misinterpret my intent." And here his intent is abundantly clear: "They tried to destroy the memory of Babi Yar, first the Germans, and then the Ukranian government, but after Yevtushenko's poem, it became clear that it would never be forgotten. That is the power of art. People knew about Babi Yar before the poem, but they were silent. But when they read the poem, the silence was broken. Art defeats silence."

"Babi Yar," the opening movement, presents a grim and damning portrait of Russian anti-Semitism. Here the writing is as direct and raw-boned as folk music. The scherzo-like second movement celebrates the kind of humor that speaks truth to power. Shostakovitch often used irony as his weapon of choice, but the fierce thrust of the music cuts with a very sharp edge. "In the Store," the third movement, presents a picture of Soviet women waiting for stores that are in short supply and for which they'll more than likely be overcharged. A tribute to the sacrifices and endurance of Soviet women during the war, Yeutushenko's words also point out the discrepancy between the regime's promises and the desultory reality most women faced in their everyday lives. Given his long and harrowing experience as an outsider in a system that above all demanded obedience of its artists, it's hardly surprising that Shostakovitch wanted to use the poem "Fears" as the fourth movement. Fear was the composer's constant companion during the terror of Stalin's purges. The last line of the poem ("Fear is a thing of the past in the Soviet Union") is delivered with bitter irony. "Careers," the final movement, celebrates men who sacrificed their own self-interest--and sometimes, their lives--in order to uphold their beliefs. Though "Careers" includes some of the most uplifting moments in the entire symphony, the coda is stark and elegiac: butterflies fluttering over grave stones, then a slow fade to black as distant church bells toll the dead. In this performance, the moment is haunting, heartbreaking.

Had the symphony been written during Stalin's regime, God only knows what fate composer and poet might have suffered? As it was, the authorities did their best to stigmatize the work, and discourage performances. Mravinsky, who had conducted the premiere of many Shostakovitch symphonies, wouldn't go near the13th. It fell to Kirill Kondrashin to conduct the work's first performance, and he did so (courageously) in spite of threats and official condemnation. A pirated tape of that first performance was released on Everest records in 1965, and it remains an essential document in spite of abysmal sound. Kondrashin's authoritative studio version, made two years later, has remained the preferred recording of the symphony for the past forty-seven years. It has now been surpassed.

Vasily Petrenko's cycle of the Shostakovitch symphonies, which began in 2008 with the 7th, has been distinguished by a very individual interpretive approach. Though Petrenko brings to these works an acute sense of historical context, his emphasis has always been on expression. He's been willing to take risks, to avoid the homogenous approach favored by so many conductors of this music. In the 5th Symphony, this means slower-than-usual tempos, an intensely focused dramatic arc that recalls Mahler. Petrenko's 9th, on the other hand, unleashes a raucous and disruptive clamor. At his best (as in the 1st, 8th, and 10th), Petrenko probes deeply into the sound world and psychological undercurrents of these works. But he's never less than compelling--there are no bad performances in the cycle--and along the way, he makes a good case for the 2nd, 3rd, and 12th, the "black sheep" of Shostakovitch's symphonic output.

With this new release of the 13th Symphony, Petrenko's long journey now comes to a glorious conclusion. As my synopsis of the work suggests, the symphony covers the full emotional register, from hushed, despairing whispers to sardonic nose-thumbing to fierce thunderclaps of outrage and anger. Petrenko's concentration and intensity make the most of every expressive opportunity, and he also projects a firm grasp of structure. In this performance, every detail counts, and every part is wed to the whole. The final effect is overwhelming, just as composer and poet intended: a fitting memorial to the lost souls of Babi Yar, and a defiant protest against the conformity and repression that characterized the communist State. The Liverpool choruses sound no less authentic, no less Russian than Kondrashin's, and Vinogradov is superb, not just for his resonant bass, but for his acting. Based on his performance here, he'd make a terrific Boris Godunov. The playing of the orchestra and the sound quality have been strong suits throughout this series. Under Petrenko's baton, the Liverpool Phil performs like a world-class orchestra, and the Naxos engineers have set them on a spacious soundstage with a transparent upper register and a stirringly visceral bass. Hats off to all concerned: this performance of the 13th Symphony is Petrenko's crowning achievement.

How does Petrenko's now complete cycle match up against others? He's both more intense and flexible than Haitink, whose cool objectivity works in some works, but not in others. If you like Kondarshin's robust, muscular, hard-driving way with Shostakovitch, Oleg Caetani, a former student, might well be the man for you. But he's working with a provincial Italian orchestra (the "Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giussepe Verdi") that occasionally sounds hard-pressed. Valery Gergiev's cycle certainly has its moments, some great performances, but lately (as in the 8th and the new release of the 10th Symphony) he seems to have grown ever more finicky and mannered. And that leaves Mariss Jansons and Petrenko: a toss-up, as far as I'm concerned. Jansons took twenty years and employed no less than eight different orchestras to get the job done; and yet, he achieves a remarkable consistency overall. The performances are uniformly brilliant and insightful. On the other hand, Petrenko is no less excellent; the Liverpool players yield nothing to the well-known orchestras that Jansons uses. The Naxos engineering is superior; and the end result costs less than half the price of the EMI. And so: if you're already invested in Petrenko's cycle, this new release is self-recommending. For those who are interested in collecting the complete cycle, this would make a great beginning. And for those looking for a single disc performance of one of Shostakovitch's greatest symphonies, you can't do better than this. Highest recommendation.

 

 

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