BARGAIN OF THE MONTH
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93 (1953) [52:11]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. 11-12 September 2009, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool. DDD
NAXOS 8.572461 [52:11]
When I reviewed Vasily Petrenko’s excellent recording of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony a little while ago I concluded by saying that I looked forward, particularly, to hearing him in the Fourth and Tenth symphonies. Well, I’m sure it’s completely coincidental – these things are planned well in advance – but here’s the very next instalment of the cycle and I’m delighted to find that it consists of the Tenth Symphony.
Winston Churchill famously described Soviet Russia in 1939 as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. He could just as easily have been speaking of Dmitri Shostakovich, whose output often seems like a mass of ambiguities and seeming contradictions. What is one to make of his Tenth Symphony? If one goes along with Solomon Volkov’s controversial Testimony then it appears that Shostakovich intended the symphony to be a portrait of Stalin. In that context it may be highly significant that work on the symphony began a few weeks after the death of Stalin on 5 March 1953. Yet, as Richard Whitehouse reminds us in his very good booklet note, parts of what became the first movement existed as early as 1951 and the origins of the symphony may lie as far back as 1946/7. Of course, it’s possible that Stalin’s death released a creative urge in Shostakovich.
However, the Stalin portrait idea sits oddly with the discovery in the last few years that during the time of the composition of the work Shostakovich was emotionally attracted to a young pianist, Elmira Nazirova (b. 1928), who had been one of his composition pupils at Moscow Conservatoire. The composer was, of course, over twenty years older than Nazirova and, at the time, was still married to his first wife, who died in 1954. Famously, much of the thematic argument of the third movement of the symphony is around the four-note motif, D-S-C-H, representing the composer’s initial and the first three letters of his surname. Equally prominent in the movement is a five-note theme, first heard on the horn at 3:37 in this performance, that uses the notes E-A-E-D-A, which transliterate musically into Nazirova’s first name. If the third movement is indeed inspired by Shostakovich’s feelings for his erstwhile pupil where does that sit in a musical portrait of Stalin? Readers who wish to explore the Shostakovich-Nazirova relationship can find more information here.
The foregoing illustrates, I hope, how difficult it is to be sure what the Tenth symphony is “about” – it’s perfectly possible, for example, that the symphony was inspired, at different points, by Shostakovich’s reactions both to Stalin and Nazirova. And when the composer himself was asked if the symphony had a programme he responded in the negative and said, enigmatically, that people should “listen and guess for themselves”.
Whatever lies behind this symphony it is, in my opinion, not just a masterpiece but also one of the most important symphonic compositions of the twentieth century. Particularly imposing is the huge first movement, a composition of great emotional reach and profundity. Pacing is all-important here and it seems to me that Petrenko’s choice of speeds is pretty much spot-on. The opening paragraph contains music that’s marked by distant, brooding menace and by a sense of anticipation. Petrenko isn’t quite as spacious as Bernard Haitink in a very fine live reading with the London Philharmonic (LPO 0034), taken from a 1986 Promenade Concert in the Royal Albert Hall. However, there’s no lack of gravitas and suspense in Petrenko’s account and he manages the gradual acceleration in pulse over the succeeding pages, which produces to an increase in tension, very successfully. In passing it’s interesting to note that Karel Ancerl, in one of the very first recordings of the symphony (DG 463 666-2), dispatched this first movement in 20:48. His recording was made in 1956, when the work was pretty new and its performance tradition was still being established. As time has passed a consensus seems to have developed among conductors – beneficially, I think – that greater breadth is appropriate, so we find Petrenko taking 22:48 and Haitink 24:40, while Rudolf Barshai, in his much admired complete cycle, comes in between at 23:14.
As this great movement unfolds I was impressed by Petrenko’s grip on its architecture. Michael Steinberg has written of the “troubled, wandering music” at the beginning of the movement but, actually, that description could well fit many of its pages. Petrenko ensures that the wandering is purposeful and he seems to me to have an excellent sense of the structure of the movement. At all times the listener is led on with seeming inevitability. The movement requires complete commitment and, above all, concentration on the part of conductor and players if it’s to make its mark. Both qualities are in evidence here in a taut and disciplined reading. My only criticism is that when the grimly strident and implacable main climax is reached (12:51 – 14:00) I’d have liked just a little more breadth than Petrenko gives; but in the context of a reading that’s wholly convincing overall that’s a minor point.
The brief scherzo has been held by many observers to be a portrait of Stalin. Given the relentless brutality of the music that’s unsurprising and it may very well be true. This is iron fist music that Richard Whitehouse correctly describes as “among the most graphic musical evocations of violence.” Shostakovich said, in a talk to the Soviet Composers’ Union in 1954, that perhaps this movement was too short in relation to the other movements in the symphony. That may be the case but I’d suggest that if the movement were much longer neither the performers nor the audience would be able to cope with it.
Petrenko and his orchestra deliver a blistering account of this savage music – listen, for example, to the implacable menace of the lower brass between 2:25 and 2:44. Though the pace is frenetic Petrenko manages to get the right amount of weight into the music as well. In this he’s better than Haitink – though that LPO performance was recorded in the huge acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall, which may have dissipated some of the savagery. He’s infinitely better that Ancerl, whose reading whips by in a mere 3:51 (Petrenko takes 4:09) and sounds lightweight by comparison with either of these conductors or, indeed, beside Barshai, whose pacing and weight is similar to Petrenko’s though the new Naxos version benefits from much punchier recorded sound.
The third movement is, I think, highly enigmatic. The DSCH motif is well to the fore early on and I love Michael Steinberg’s thought that, with the second movement behind us, “The Stalin juggernaut is gone; it is the nervous Shostakovich himself who has made his apprehensive appearance.” It’s the introduction of the “Elmira” motif that starts to pose questions. Why, for example, is the first hearing of that motif followed immediately by a reminiscence of the “troubled, wandering music” that we first heard at the very outset of the first movement? And then, follow the dialogue, as it were, between the two motifs as the movement unfolds: what sort of relationship is the composer seeking to portray here – if, indeed, that’s what he’s doing? Petrenko leads a very fine – and extremely well played – account of this movement. The music is highly charged even when it is subdued in tone and this gifted young conductor maintains the tension very well indeed. From 8:28 onwards the build-up to the main climax has the requisite intensity as the pace accelerates. And then at the climax, when the DSCH motif tries to assert itself, is it defiance that we hear as the Elmira motif is hurled out ff by the horns? Truly, this is an enigmatic movement, but a very fine one, and these performers have the measure of it.
The finale opens in a mood of intense melancholy. Here there are distinguished contributions from the RLPO’s principal oboist and bassoonist. On the face of it, when the main allegro bursts forth (5:10) the music is extrovert, even high spirited. But, as so often with Shostakovich one just can’t be sure. In any event, it seems to me that joviality would be at odds with what has gone before, both in the introduction to the finale and, indeed, during the preceding three movements. One is reminded of the finale of the Fifth Symphony, which at a superficial level sounds like a victory, albeit one that has been hard won, but which, in reality, is probably anything but. Sure enough, at 7:24 wailing high woodwind figures begin to ratchet up the tension and the mood becomes increasingly fraught. From here on the material of the allegro is transformed into something darker until a huge climax on the DSCH motif is achieved. After that, some of the material from the movement’s introduction is revisited by the strings, although it now wears a rather more gentle countenance. Petrenko’s account of all this is compelling and his orchestra is with him every step of the way, delivering high-octane yet excellently disciplined playing. This thrusting, thoroughly committed traversal of the finale sets the seal on a very fine account of one of Shostakovich’s most searching symphonic creations.
Throughout this performance the RLPO offers very fine playing. They face stiff competition in the catalogue from many of the world’s leading orchestras but I don’t feel they need fear the comparisons. Their playing more than holds its own in this company. As for their conductor, this release serves to add further lustre to his reputation, especially in Russian repertoire. Once again Naxos have provided recorded sound that combines punch, presence and ambience. The excellence of the package is completed by Richard Whitehouse’s informed and informative notes.
This is shaping up to be a distinguished cycle of the Shostakovich symphonies. Those who have started to collect the series should not hesitate to invest in this latest release while newcomers, as they say, should start here. Further releases are awaited eagerly.
Reviews of the Petrenko Shostakovich cycle on MusicWeb International
Symphony No 5 & No 9
Symphony No 8
Symphony No 11
Another fine instalment in what is shaping up to be a distinguished cycle of the Shostakovich symphonies.