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Dmitri Shostakovitch
Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op.93
Vasily Petrenko conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

Review By Max Westler


  When (in 2008) the British musical press first touted the accomplishments of Vasily Petrenko, the young Russian conductor who had just been appointed music director of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, I was deeply suspicious. After all, this was the same gang that had unleashed Sir Rattle on an unsuspecting public. Sir Simon Rattle, that is — a perfectly ordinary conductor (if that) whose career proves, if nothing else, that the "Emperor's New Clothes" is no children's fable. However, when non-British critics also began to sing his praises, my suspicion slowly turned to curiosity. And when he was scheduled to perform the Shostakovitch Symphony No. 10 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as a guest, I decided to see for myself. Given that Petrenko's recording of that symphony had won the Gramophone's 2009 award for "Best Orchestral Recording," I thought this would be a fair test of his abilities.

If you want to know what a violinist can do, hand him a Stradivarius. If you want to know what a conductor can do, put him in front of a virtuoso instrument like the Chicago. Certainly his technical skills will be tested, but mere technical skills can only take him so far. Pierre Boulez may indeed be a great technician, but I've always found his performances in Chicago shallow and cold. Petrenko certainly had the skills. Young though he may be, he conducted with confidence and a sense of authority. His gestures were balletic, but also communicative. He knew exactly what he wanted, and he knew how to ask for it. But more important, he involved the orchestra at the deepest emotional level. The entire program he conducted that day was impressively done (Elgar's Cockaigne Overture, the Barber Violin Concerto), but the Shostakovitch was a special wonder: the performance took wing with the first notes, and the intensity never flagged. You didn't have to be a musicologist to know you were hearing a great performance. The roar at the end reminded me of what you might hear at Wrigley Field on the rare occasion one of the Cubs hits a walk-off home run.

Almost an hour in duration, the Shostakovitch 10th is itself a formidable challenge. Shostakovitch began the symphony in March 1953, a few days after learning of Stalin's death. That was no coincidence, for the 10th is one of the composer's most autobiographical works, a spiritual record of survival during the long, dark night of Stalin's reign. Stalin took an almost sadistic delight in keeping his artists in a state of perpetual fear and uncertainty. Shostakovitch himself had friends and acquaintances who had been "disappeared" during the purges. With Stalin's death, the composer could finally do as he wished; he knew the 10th would be the first symphony that Stalin wouldn't hear. Appropriately, the first movement spans a twenty-two minute dramatic arc that begins in numbed awakening and ends with a cry of existential dread. The allegro that follows is all giddy panic and desperation, a speeding car about to skid off the road. The allegretto balances light and dark in equal measure, but ends with a sense of exhaustion. The finale begins grimly, an ominous and restive andante that soon blossoms into one of the composer's happiest tunes; and though the rest of the movement suggests a child's delight in play, those dark shadings persist, and the uproar at the very end isn't entirely celebratory.

Petrenko's interpretation fused all of these conflicting and contradictory forces into a dramatically convincing and cohesive whole that was both detailed and expressive. It was as compelling (and harrowing) as any Shostakovitch 10th I'd ever heard, and I left Orchestra Hall determined to purchase his recording (and also wondering if it could possibly be as remarkable as the performance I'd just experienced). It was indeed. It says much about Petrenko's vision of the music that his interpretation was so consistent over the two-year span that separated the release of the recording from the live performance. I had feared that the recorded sound of the Royal Liverpool would come as a disappointment after the very alive sound of the Chicago. It goes without saying that the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic is not in the same world class as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Though they're the oldest orchestra on the British isles, they've spent a lot of that history in the shadow of their more esteemed cousins in London, Bournemouth, and Manchester (home of the Halle Orchestra). But judged on the basis of this recording (and some others I've recently sampled), they play with remarkable concentration and intensity, and a tonal richness that certainly had me believing I was listening to a major ensemble. The solos were especially and uniformly impressive, soulful for the more lyric episodes, fierce and biting in the more dramatic ones. And if, to all this, you add the best orchestral sound I've ever heard on a Naxos disc (luminous at the top, all warmth on the bottom), it's small wonder it won that prestigious Gramophone award. The fact that my three favorite recordings of this symphony (Berglund, Mravinsky, and Mitropolous) are currently out of print makes this performance essential listening.


P.S. I know I owe the British musical press an apology and so here it is. Sorry, guys. I'll never stop believing that good old-fashioned chauvinism got the better of your judgment when it comes to Sr. Rattle; but from here on in, I'm going to let bygones be bygones. I promise to never doubt you again. Well, hardly ever.





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