For a symphony dismissed as ‘a film score without a film’ Shostakovich’s Eleventh
fared surprisingly well on disc. Of the older versions Kirill
Kondrashin’s on Melodiya MELCD 1001065 is mandatory listening;
it may be rough and occasionally teeter on the brink of anarchy
but it has a drive and conviction that has never been equalled.
Among the more modern versions, Vladimir Ashkenazy’s St
Petersburg Philharmonic performance (Decca 448 179-2) is by turns
dramatic and powerful. Of course there are other pretenders to
the throne, among them Roman Kofman with his disappointing account
for MDG (see review
In his Eleven
survey David Barker welcomes this new Petrenko disc,
as indeed does Bob Briggs (see review
There are some caveats, which I’ll come to later, but what
surprised me most was David’s dismissal of the James DePreist/Helsinki
PO version (Delos DE3380), a recording I have known and admired
for years. Yes, it may seem a little tame compared with Kondrashin,
but there’s a tautness and drive - especially in the final
movement - that makes for a thrilling performance.
Tautness and drive are not words that spring to mind in the first
movement of Petrenko’s Eleventh.
In the brooding
music of ‘Palace Square’ Kondrashin and Ashkenazy
both find more tension and, strange as it may sound, more poetry.
Kondrashin breaks through the permafrost, highlighting the laments
behind those implacable timps, a reflection, perhaps, on the
old Russia that is about to be lost forever. Petrenko skates
over the surface of this music, his reading compromised even
further by the need to fiddle with the volume control before
it all snaps into focus. Here David and I do
is a very disappointing start to the symphony.
Knob-twiddling aside, the Naxos sound is actually very good,
with a broad, deep, soundstage. That said, the Soviet-era Melodiya
recordings have come up very well, and in many ways the sharper,
more upfront, presentation pays off in terms of detail. But it’s
Ashkenazy who has the best of all possible worlds - great clarity
and fearsome dynamics that don’t
volume adjustments. He also has a first-class Russian orchestra
at his fingertips, which manages a much more polished performance
than the Moscow Phil does for Kondrashin. By contrast, Petrenko
and the RLPO sound much too cultured - and cultivated - for this
edgiest of symphonies.
‘The Ninth of January’ is a case in point; the Liverpool
band’s lower strings lack that all-important shiver of
anticipation, and the orchestral melee that follows, while spectacular,
sounds more like a skirmish than a battle. Kondrashin and Ashkenazy
draw a much more visceral response from their players, especially
when the music reaches its bloody climax; the plucked strings,
snap of side drums and thud of bass drum are far more scarifying
than Petrenko’s forces can quite muster. That said, the
RLPO certainly play their hearts out at this point, and with
great intensity in the quiet coda that ends this movement. But
the most frustrating element of Petrenko’s reading is that
it seems fitful, a series of musical tableaux rather than a closely
argued symphonic whole.
Some years ago I watched Valery Gergiev conducting Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ -
another battle, another roster of the dead and dying - and was
struck by the spectral quality he brought to the second movement,
originally entitled ‘Memories’. The Eleventh
its ‘Eternal Memories’ too, where Kondrashin finds
a mixture of stoicism and grief that is hard to beat or bear.
By contrast, Petrenko is much more direct - dry-eyed, even -
bringing an emotional distance to the music that simply doesn’t
do it justice.
The allegro finale - ‘The Tocsin’ - merely reinforces
that feeling of detachment. Yes, the orchestral playing is crisp
and there’s plenty of heft in the tuttis, but there’s
no sense of other layers, of other musical strands, that need
to be brought to the fore. One doesn’t have to buy into
the symphony-as-autobiography school of criticism - I generally
don’t - to realise there’s rather more to this piece
than Petrenko can possibly convey. Given that Kondrashin (in
) and Mravinsky (in the Twelfth
helped to rehabilitate these proletarian crowd-pleasers, Petrenko’s
throwback to the tub-thumper is all the more surprising.
Indeed, the final movement, with its bell-capped peroration,
crystallises everything I don’t care for in Petrenko’s
reading; it’s episodic, under-characterised and lacking
in sheer thrust. Ashkenazy and the St Petersburg band - Mravinsky’s
old orchestra - capture more of the music’s forward momentum,
with Kondrashin offering us a helter-skelter ride to the finish.
Curiously, Petrenko follows Kofman in allowing the bells to ring
out and decay into silence well after
the music has ended.
It didn’t work there and I don’t think it works here.
I just can’t summon up any enthusiasm for this new recording.
For all its sonic virtues - volume levels notwithstanding - this
is a pale imitation of Shostakovich’s Eleventh.
for Kondrashin if you want a special kind of authenticity, or
with Ashkenazy if you want high drama and superb sonics. And
don’t underestimate Gergiev, who is now recording these
symphonies for the Mariinsky’s own label. All the more
welcome as they will be SACDs.
of Shostakovich's Eleventh Symphony