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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No.11 in G minor, ‘The Year 1905’, Op. 103 (1956/7) [57:37]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. 22-23 April 2008, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, UK
NAXOS 8.572082 [57:37]
Experience Classicsonline

For a symphony dismissed as ‘a film score without a film’ Shostakovich’s Eleventh has 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 11s 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 agree, this 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 require constant 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 has 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 the Eleventh) and Mravinsky (in the Twelfth) have 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. Go 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.

Dan Morgan  

All reviews of Shostakovich's Eleventh Symphony



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