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
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
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
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.