Shostakovich: Symphonies No 2 & 15 / Petrenko, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

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Vasily Petrenko’s Shostakovich cycle marches on. This is volume seven. I presume there are four more to follow as and when Petrenko sets down the Fourth Symphony – to which I’m particularly looking forward – and numbers 7, 13 and 14.
This latest instalment pairs symphonies from the opposite chronological ends of the composer’s symphonic output. Number 2 was written to mark the tenth anniversary of the 1917 Revolution. Perhaps ominously – in terms of potential for artistic merit – it was commissioned by the Propaganda Division of the State Music Publishers’ Section. Interestingly, Richard Whitehouse relates in his notes that, initially, the work was not designated as a symphony; Shostakovich only took that step, it seems, a couple of years later. The work is in one continuous movement and in the last six minutes or so an SATB chorus is introduced. Their task is to deliver the four-stanza poem by one Alexander Bezimensky (1898-1973). Richard Whitehouse describes him as an “’official’ proletarian poet” but if this is a fair example of his work the term “party hack” might be more appropriate. Clearly, Shostakovich had no say in the choice of text and, apparently, he didn’t think much of it.
Richard Whitehouse observes that the symphony was composed during the most overtly modernist phase of his career. One might suggest that the term “brutalist” might also fairly apply to this score. Naxos helpfully split the piece into three separate tracks and these are reflected in the liner-notes. Shostakovich can be a forbidding composer at times but in this score we find him at his most experimental and intractable. For a start there are virtually no melodic themes in it – the trumpet tune that appears a couple of minutes into the score is more or less the only melody, as Whitehouse points out. Given the absence of themes it’s perhaps unsurprising that I struggle to discern any sort of development in the conventional sense. For example, I find it hard to see what relation the first five or six minutes of the score (track 1) bear to the music that follows, except as an unrelated introduction, perhaps. The music that opens the second section (track 2) is reminiscent of parts of the First Symphony. As this section unfolds the music becomes ever more strident. After a solo violin passage the texture becomes increasingly complex but it’s hard to see what all the activity signifies. Hereabouts the playing of the RLPO is tremendously vigorous and earlier, when the music was stirring to life from very subdued beginnings, there was no little finesse to the playing. So far as I can tell the performance is also very precise.
It would be kind to describe the words of the concluding choral section as banal; the poem is unmitigated Revolutionary tosh! Shostakovich “rewards” the poet with choral writing of no great distinction; these final minutes are brash and boldly coloured but, to be honest, one feels it’s a case of sound and fury signifying nothing. It’s richly ironic that when Shostakovich produced the sort of music that the authorities expected he wrote such stuff as this but when he composed music that was not in keeping with official expectations – in the Sixth or Eighth Symphonies, for instance – he produced his finest work. Vasily Petrenko and his orchestra – and choir – do their best for the score and give a colourful and committed account of it but, really, this is base metal. I find it perplexing, to say the least, to trace Shostakovich’s development as a symphonist from the precocious First Symphony through to the magnificent, complex Fourth. Indeed, the Second and Third Symphonies don’t really seem to offer much in the way of a bridge between those two tremendous scores.
I find the Fifteenth Symphony just as perplexing but in a very different way. Just what was Shostakovich saying this late score? What was going on behind that impassive face and those slightly owlish thick spectacles? A troubled spirit, it would seem, but what was troubling him?
One of the great enigmas of this score lies in the use made of quotations. Shostakovich made use of self-quotation in his music but to the best of my knowledge it was rare for him to quote other composers. Yet here, in what turned out to be his last symphony, we find him quoting from two composers – and from two radically different composers at that – as well as from himself.
The first movement opens deceptively with perky material on flute and then bassoon. The opening pages are reminiscent of the Ninth Symphony it seems to me. Then, at 1:57 the trumpet plays a familiar motif from Rossini’s William Tell overture. The Rossini motif has been foreshadowed in the moments leading up to its first appearance – the first of several in the movement – but what is the meaning? I confess I’m far from sure except to note that the motif is of a piece with Shostakovich’s characteristic sardonic streak and that, though the fragment of tune stands out every time we hear it, it is well integrated into the composer’s own material. The music becomes increasingly urgent, alarmed and, indeed, strident in tone and the reappearances of the Rossini quote seem to act as a brake on proceedings and to bring the music back to a less stressful, more insouciant level. Throughout this movement, whatever the mood of the music, the playing of the RLPO is crisp and characterful.
The second movement takes us to an altogether deeper level – though in saying that I don’t wish to imply that the first movement is superficial; it’s not. The Adagio opens with a brass chorale, which recurs at intervals as the movement unfurls. I think it’s hugely significant that this chorale is taken from the opening movement, The Palace Square, of the Eleventh Symphony, a work that I still think has yet to receive its full recognition within the composer’s output. It will be remembered that the Eleventh commemorates the failed Russian Revolution of 1905. The chorale is followed by extended glacial passages in which cello and viola solos are prominent. Here we are in the world of the string quartets. This is spare, searching music that has the character of a threnody. Petrenko and his players are excellent in maintaining the tension in these sparsely scored paragraphs, a virtue I < admired in their traversal of the first movement of the Sixth Symphony. Eventually (at 6:50) we hear an idea on the flutes but it’s not until this is taken up at some length by a solo trombone that it becomes clear that this is a funeral march. Eventually (at 11:01) the march erupts almost out of nothing into a huge climax. When this is spent the chorale returns, firstly on hushed strings and then on the brass. Now, I think, having experienced the funeral march we perhaps understand the significance of the quotation form the Eleventh. Is it that Shostakovich had unfinished business with the failed revolutionaries of 1905? Is he saying in this movement that those revolutionaries were betrayed by the Stalinist excesses in the years that followed the successful revolution of 1917?
The third movement, which follows attacca, is extremely brief. Richard Whitehouse rightly draws attention to the “barbed humour”. This is real nose-thumbing, sneering music and it’s adroitly done by Petrenko’s orchestra which offers some suitably pungent playing. Unless my ears deceive me the horns make a reference to the old DSCH motif one last time in a Shostakovich symphony.
The finale brings us the quotations from a second composer: Wagner. Right at the start the low brass intone the ‘fate’ motif from Die Walküre, followed by the soft timpani tattoo from Siegfried’s Funeral Music in Götterdämmerung. A few moments later (at 1:07) there’s surely another Wagner reference. The violins have an extended melody and as a kind of upbeat to it they play the same three notes with which Tristan begins. It’s possible that this is a coincidence but I don’t think so. The melody itself is described by Richard Whitehouse as “graceful”. I know what he means but I’m not sure that description is the full story: it sounds to me to be a spectral kind of grace; as so often with Shostakovich ambiguity is everywhere. This long, winding violin theme serves as the impetus for much of the content of the succeeding paragraphs. After another appearance of the ‘fate’ motif (5:28) what is at first a ghostly passacaglia begins. The music grows in temperature and intensity until a substantial climax is reached (10:08). This is another – and the last – of Shostakovich’s trademark towering symphonic climaxes and in it I hear definite echoes – grim ones – of the Leningrad Symphony. After the climax has subsided the music becomes wan and lean again; here the playing of the RLPO is once again most effective. The ending is enigmatic; the soft, tintinnabulating percussion over soft string chords recalls the conclusion of the Fourth Symphony, albeit the passage is longer this time. With a soft bell chime Shostakovich writes finis to his canon of symphonies.
The Fifteenth is a difficult symphony, not because its language is difficult in the way that the language of the Second is gratuitously difficult. It’s difficult because it’s so hard to grasp what are the composer’s intentions. I bought Maxim Shostakovich’s 1972 première recording when it came out – I still have the LP – and yet, even after all these years I’m not confident that I fully comprehend this elusive piece. I am sure, however, that it’s a fine and expressive composition and it’s the work of a mature and highly experienced symphonist whereas the Second is the work of a young, iconoclastic innovator. I don’t believe that earlier piece is genuinely symphonic in the sense of including any conventional development of ideas.
I doubt I shall listen often to the Second, though I’m sure that Vasily Petrenko and his choir and orchestra serve it well. I’m certain, however, that I shall return to this performance of the Fifteenth which strikes me as being excellent both in terms of the interpretation and the execution. The Naxos sound is very good: it reports the massive climaxes very well but conveys equally successfully the many quiet passages, both at the start of the Second and during the Fifteenth. As usual, Richard Whitehouse’s notes are very good at outlining the background to the works and at describing each score. However, it’s slightly disappointing that he doesn’t attempt any real discussion of the quotations in the Fifteenth beyond saying that they’re present.
This is another fine instalment in this important Shostakovich symphony cycle and I hope we won’t have to wait too long for the next release.
-- John Quinn, MusicWeb International

One of the nice things about Vasily Petrenko’s ongoing Shostakovich cycle, now well past its halfway point, is that it is making me reevaluate symphonies I did not think so highly of previously. The conductor’s recent recording of the Third Symphony (with the First, on Naxos 8.572396) inspired me to comment, “Petrenko’s reading is so full of good humor—and perhaps a little sarcasm—that I found myself enjoying this symphony more than usual.” Well, the Second is, for the most part, just as good, aided and abetted by some really fun playing from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and exciting sound from Naxos’s engineering team. The opening pages, an extended bass drum roll, quietly played, and soon overlaid by what Shostakovich called “ultrapolyphony” (27 simultaneously played voices) create a strikingly Ivesian effect. Now, Ives was ahead of his time, and so was the young Shostakovich, who anticipated several of the 20th century’s later musical developments in this symphony. Petrenko pulls it off with impudence, and the factory whistle that introduces the chorus has never been more visceral in its impact. (Shostakovich advised that, in the absence of a factory whistle, a chord for horns and trombones could be used instead. I am not sure what is being used here—it sounds like a jet engine, actually—but it is most impressive.) The chorus is almost as idiomatic as it was in the Third Symphony, and if the singers sound a little hoarse, I can forgive them. (Shostakovich shows neither the orchestra nor the chorus much mercy in this symphony.) Perhaps that’s what singing about Lenin and communes does to one.
Few people doubt the importance of the 15th Symphony. In fact, in bolstering its stature, and its place as the terminal symphony in Shostakovich’s canon, conductors have a tendency to make it seem more funereal than perhaps is necessary. Petrenko’s reading takes 48: 35, which really is quite slow, but this is one of those times when the subjective tempos seem faster. I think this is because Petrenko plays up the chamber music-like textures that dominate this work; slow is not the same as heavy, after all. Also, he is almost maliciously funny in the first movement, and in the third. Yes, the humor is of the black variety, but Petrenko applies it delicately, and as a consequence, there is more subtlety and nuance here than one expects even in this symphony. There are many examples of particularly fine solo playing from several members of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, too. Surely, this is one of the best versions of the 15th Symphony currently available—right up there with one of Kondrashin’s recordings, or (for something much richer) Ormandy’s. Petrenko’s Second easily eclipses Morton Gould’s and Bernard Haitink’s (to name two of the most famous alternatives). For the Shostakovich fan, there’s every reason to get this newest release from Petrenko, and no good reason not to. Have at it.
FANFARE: Raymond Tuttle

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8572708

  • UPC: 747313270873

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich

  • Conductor: Vasily Petrenko

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra