Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47 (1937) [51:36]
Symphony No. 9 in E flat major, Op. 70 (1945) [26:31]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, UK, 7-8 July 2008 (Symphony No. 5) and 29-30 July 2008 (Symphony No. 9)
NAXOS 8.572167 [78:07]
Something special would have to make me recommend a CD containing two of Shostakovich’s most popular symphonies, especially the ubiquitous Fifth. Before doing some comparisons with a few recordings of the past, I can state outright that these performances, as part of Petrenko’s continuing cycle, are more than competitive with their illustrious predecessors. Petrenko indeed has the measure of both works and he has the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic sounding a world-class ensemble. Furthermore, the recorded sound is full and vibrant, leaving little to be desired.
My introduction to the Shostakovich Fifth was sometime in 1959 or 1960 when I heard the Leonard Bernstein recording, fresh from the orchestra’s successful Moscow performances. I was blown away by that recording. What a shock, then, to hear it a number of years later as performed by the USSR State Symphony under the composer’s son. It sounded like a different work, especially the finale which I thought ridiculously slow and pompous. The orchestra sounded rough - especially next to the sleek New York Philharmonic - and the recording was frankly awful in the pressing I heard. Of course, this was before the so-called Shostakovich memoirs as related by Solomon Volkov came out. Nowadays Bernstein sounds ludicrously fast, if still brilliant. Living in the Washington, DC area I had the opportunity to get to appreciate Mstislav Rostropovich’s interpretations with the National Symphony Orchestra. Petrenko’s account of the finale reminds me of Rostropovich’s with the coda hammered out as slowly as possible and a forced “triumph” that’s hard to endure. It is extremely powerful and very convincing on its own terms. I compared this new version with three others, not having one of Rostropovich’s to hand: Bernstein’s (1959), Haitink’s, with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Ashkenazy’s, with the Royal Philharmonic, and Maxim Shostakovich’s, with the London Symphony. Here are the timings:
I II III IV Bernstein 16:13 4:54 15:33 8:55 Haitink 17:59 5:23 15:36 10:32 Ashkenazy 16:36 5:19 14:45 10:59 M. Shostakovich 18:57 5:21 17:06 12:16 Petrenko 18:01 5:12 15:34 12:50
As you can see from the above, there is no consensus on tempos for the individual movements, except maybe the second movement, Scherzo. Nor should there necessarily be. This is what makes having different interpretations of the standard repertoire valuable. Tempos do not tell the whole story by far, but comparing Bernstein’s and Petrenko’s timings for the finale is very telling! Another characteristic that distinguishes this new account is the huge dynamic range, from the softest pianissimos to the loudest fortissimos I have ever heard in this symphony. Part of this may be due to the recording, but I think most of the credit must go to the conductor and orchestra. Next to Petrenko, Haitink seems rather urbane but still convincing and beautifully played. Ashkenazy, whose recording was my preferred CD version until now, presents more of a middle-of-the-road view, blessed by vivid sonics on his Decca recording. However, I now find the added horn and trumpet swoops, à la Mahler, in the second movement, irritating on repetition. Maxim Shostakovich’s account is rather odd, I think. After his unrefined, but idiomatic USSR Symphony version, he smoothed out all the edges when he recorded it with the London Symphony. It is no doubt wonderfully played, with especially gorgeous horns in the Scherzo, but leaves little impact. The recording is also more distant than the others and may contribute to this impression. I have not heard his more recent account with Prague Symphony, but others have found it an improvement over the London version. Right now, having heard the Petrenko quite a few times, I would place it at or near the top of the heap. It will be the one I will listen to now whenever I’m in the mood for this particular work, which is not all that often.
The Ninth Symphony, though, is one of my favorite Shostakovich symphonies. Here my basis for comparison, and my favored CD version, is Neeme Järvi’s with the Scottish National Orchestra on Chandos. Järvi brings out the humor in the score as well as I have ever heard it. Drawbacks are the less than perfect tuning of the trombones in the fourth movement and the reverberant recording which has a longer decay than is optimal for this symphony. Right from the beginning, I was impressed with the sound on the new Petrenko recording of this symphony. It is very clear, yet not at all clinical and with plenty of warmth where required. Also the orchestra performs here at least as well as it does in the Fifth. I should especially mention the outstanding clarinetist in the second movement, and equally outstanding trombones (with tuba) and bassoon in the fourth. No tuning problems there. Where I still have a preference for the Järvi is in the gruff humor he finds in the symphony. Petrenko’s is a more subtle, classical account without the humor being as obvious. His tempos are also more extreme. For example, his second movement Moderato takes 8:47 whereas Järvi gets through it in 6:31. It is marked moderato, after all. Still, Petrenko does not sound slow and is convincing. His third movement Presto, on the other hand, is faster than any version I have heard - truly presto. It is exhilarating and the orchestra manages to keep up miraculously well. Järvi’s is only 12 seconds longer, but seems noticeably slower. Petrenko is as light as a feather here and the music just breezes by. So again, Petrenko has given us a good alternative to other favorite versions.
To sum up: at the level of musicianship present in this new recording, we definitely need another Shostakovich Fifth and Ninth Symphony pairing, particularly at Naxos’ bargain price. I must also mention the excellent notes by Richard Whitehouse that not only discuss the works at hand, but also trace the composer’s symphonic development.