What we have here are two versions of the Shostakovich Eighth Symphony, taken from ongoing cycles currently competing for your attention. As of this writing, Petrenko is only one symphony shy of completing his cycle, whereas Gergiev still has a ways to go in his. I should probably have waited for both cycles to be completed before comparing them; but I'm not sure how many more reviews of Shostakovich symphonies I have left in me. Besides, the Eighth makes a useful and revealing point of comparison. Along with the First, the Fifth, and the Tenth, it's one of the composer's greatest achievements in the form; and of those four works, it's probably the hardest to bring off.
A friend once usefully distinguished between "militarized" and
"demilitarized" interpretations of Shostakovich symphonies. A "militarized"
approach is one that takes into account the historical and biographical context
in which the symphonies were written. Shostakovich survived many upheavals: the
Bolshevik revolution, the Stalinist purges, the nightmare of the Second World
War, the siege of Leningrad, and the cultural repression of the post-war years.
Stalin had personally censored Shostakovich after the premiere of his opera Lady
Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in 1936. The review that appeared in
Pravda ("Music or Muddle?") might have been written by a party hack, but it bore
the full weight of Stalin's disapproval. Stalin seemed to take a sadistic
delight in terrorizing Shostakovich. The threat was constant and real: several
of the composer's fellow artists and friends had already been quietly "disappeared."
During the darkest days of the purge, he kept a suitcase packed, just in case;
but mercifully, the midnight knock on the door never came.
The publication of Testimony in 1979 at once complicated and amplified the "militarized" point of view. Claiming to be the memoirs of Shostakovich "as related to and edited by" the young musicologist Solomon Volkov, the book suggested that the inspiration for many of Shostakovich's most familiar works had been his animus for both Stalin and the brutal system he represented. The Fifth Symphony, fir example, was not "a Soviet artist's creative response to justified criticism," a form of public apology and penance for the "formalism" of Lady Macbeth. It was not meant to be the affirmative work the authorities expected, but an "irreparable tragedy," a portrait of a system that ground the human spirit to ashes. The ending of the last movement, typically played as exultant, was, on the contrary, anything but. As Shostakovich says in Testimony, "the rejoicing is forced, created under threat. It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,' and you rise, shaky, and go off dragging your feet, muttering, ‘Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.'"
Vasily Petrenko takes the most "militarized" interpretive
stance since Mstislav Rostropovitch. The Eighth Symphony is inescapably grim,
easily Shostakovich's darkest work before the last quartets. For Petrenko the
opening of the first movement is all grim foreboding, the first act of an "irreparable
tragedy." He tightens the coil gradually, but relentlessly until it explodes in
an outburst of anguish and despair. The allegretto is deliberately bloated,
disruptive, and parodistic—laughter that cuts like a razorblade. The allegro
that follows is terrifying, the remorseless grinding of an infernal machine,
then a mad hatter trumpet call to mass slaughter. In the Eighth, the question
has always been, do we at least get some sunlight, some redemption, in the
concluding allegretto? Not surprisingly, with Petrenko, the answer is most
definitely "No!" For Petrenko, the darkness is impenetrable and unrelieved.
Though Gergiev surely knows all the history, he
characteristically takes a more individual approach. He's very much "demilitarized."
Gergiev has always been a "hands-on" interpreter: whatever work he's conducting
isn't going to sound much like anybody else's version. In Shostakovich, he
employs a host of expressive devices that Petrenko scrupulously avoids. Whereas
Petrenko is relentless and deliberate, Gergiev often adjusts the tempo: pushing
forward here, pulling back there. Whereas Petrenko's textures are lean and
gunmetal grey, Gergiev favors a dark, bass-heavy sound. In the Eighth, Gergiev
is less relentless in that first movement, more "weighty." In the second and
third movements, his self-conscious tempo adjustments occasionally slow the
momentum. And in the end, he does provide the "happy ending" that Petrenko
If forced to choose between these two approaches, I'd go with Petrenko. But I hasten to add that Gergiev's performance has a lot going for it. It's certainly more robust, operatic, and in some cases more dramatic than Petrenko's. The Mariinsky Orchestra may not be the St. Petersburg, but under Gergiev's baton, they're capable of wonders; and here the playing is virtuosic, dazzling. Then again, the Royal Liverpool band also plays magnificently; which is perhaps even more impressive given what Petrenko demands of them. The difference in sound reflects the difference in interpretive approach. Naxos gives us a more distant perspective with a very natural soundstage; Mariinsky is close up, in your face. With Petrenko, you've got a balcony seat; with Gergiev, you're in the first row of the orchestra. Make no mistake: Gergiev and Petrenko both have much to offer. But be forewarned: they're very, very different. Petrenko's tragic vision is totally uncompromising. Gergiev casts the symphony in a more conventional, Romantic mold: struggle followed by triumph.
One final issue: Gergiev grunts, audibly. He usually does so launching into moments of extreme tension. This might bother some, and others (many others I suspect) not at all. Gergiev is hardly the first well-known musician to add extramusical sounds to his performances: Glenn Gould hummed, Rudolph Serkin thumped, Charles Munch whooshed. Full disclosure: I've been known to hum, thump, and whoosh while listening, sometimes all at the same time. But I've never grunted. Not even once. Just so you know.