This latest instalment in Vasily Petrenko’s Shostakovich symphony
cycle features one of his most intriguing works – the Sixth
Symphony – and what is probably his weakest – the Twelfth. I’ve
only recently reviewed
Petrenko’s coupling of the First and Third symphonies and I
was intrigued to see that these new recordings stem from the
same sessions. The Sixth was recorded at the same time as the
Third Symphony while the Twelfth comes from the same sessions
that produced Petrenko’s fine account of the First Symphony.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the same comments that I made in
the previous review about the standards of playing and recorded
sound apply here also.
What are we to make of Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony and, in
particular, its unusual structure? It consists of three movements.
The first is a substantial Largo, which dominates the work.
In this performance it lasts for 19:45 and so occupies well
over fifty percent of the length of Petrenko’s reading. Furthermore,
the Largo seems in many ways to be completely at odds with the
character of the two succeeding movements. Arguably, the symphony
seems unbalanced – though I hasten to add I’m not denigrating
it on that account. The design was clearly deliberate and I
wonder what Shostakovich intended by it.
Many passages in the Largo are cruelly exposed and will mercilessly
betray any frailties of tuning, intonation or balance. The music
is also a stern test of the powers of concentration of both
conductor and players. Happily, if unsurprisingly, Petrenko
and the RLPO surmount all its challenges. In particular I admire
the way Petrenko sustains the tension. This must be particularly
difficult to do in passages such as that between 12:05 and 13:39
where Shostakovich’s writing achieves something akin to musical
stasis other than the flutes circling above in the chilly upper
regions. Incidentally, the playing of the flautists in this
episode is but one example of the fine solo playing from the
RLPO’s principals; another is the doleful cor anglais solo that
comes earlier (7:23-8:15). Interrupted by a few climaxes, the
overriding impression left by the music is one of glacial arctic
wastes and vast open spaces. It’s a profound but very enigmatic
movement and in this compelling performance the listener’s attention
is held, which is no small feat given the often spare, even
forbidding textures and thematic material.
The following Allegro scampers along for much of the time and
there are frequent examples of Shostakovich’s sardonic side.
The scoring is infinitely more colourful. The performance has
tremendous spirit, not least on account of the players’ excellent
articulation. The RLPO displays agility and precision throughout
the movement. I love the insouciant manner in which the music
is delivered in the last couple of minutes, and not least the
delicious pay-off at the end. There follows another quick movement,
this time marked Presto. From Richard Whitehouse’s interesting
note I learned that this movement was encored when Mravinsky
and the Leningrad Philharmonic gave the first performance. He
also tells us that the composer was particularly proud of this
finale. On the surface at least this movement seems to be something
of a merry dance – though with Shostakovich one can never be
sure that all is as it seems – and the music seems a world away
from the mood of the opening Largo. The deftness of the RLPO
is admirable and the performance certainly rounds off in great
style what is a very fine reading of the entire work.
Nothing that I say in the following paragraphs must be taken
as a criticism of the performers. However, I’m afraid that,
even though I’m a great admirer of Shostakovich’s symphonies
I find it hard to discern many redeeming features in the Twelfth,
a work that I first encountered back in the 1960s through Georges
Prêtre’s Philharmonia recording but which I’ve successfully
avoided for many years. It seems to me to lack any real development
in any of the four movements, which are played without a break.
Worse still, the thematic material is, at best, unmemorable
and, at worst, banal. It occurred to me while listening to this
performance that the music might be better suited as the accompaniment
to a film. For example, the second movement bears the title
‘Razliv’ after the name of a village where Lenin hid after his
return to Petrograd. In some respects this is the best music
in the work in that some passages are expressive – though nowhere
near the quality of expression that one finds in the slow movement
of the Sixth. But, for all that, nothing actually seems to happen.
The music just drifts on, mainly in eerie quietness. If it were
to be heard as the accompaniment to film of a poverty-stricken
early twentieth century Russian village or to pictures of a
bleak wintry landscape in that country then what one hears would
probably enhance the visual images. However, heard in isolation,
the music seems to go nowhere.
Mind you, that seems preferable to the other movements in which
Shostakovich depicts respectively ‘Revolutionary Petrograd’;
‘Aurora’ (after the warship from which the Winter Palace was
shelled at the start of the Bolshevik Revolution); and ‘The
Dawn of Humanity’, a title which, even before one has heard
the music suggests – all too correctly - a piece of Soviet Communist
Party hack writing. I’m afraid that the musical invention in
these movements, the finale in particular, is feeble. I know
that the Seventh and Eleventh Symphonies have their detractors
– though I’m not among them, even though I recognise the weak
points in both works – but those two symphonies are infinitely
superior to the thin gruel that Shostakovich – for whatever
motives – dished out here.
Petrenko and the RLPO do their very best for the work and their
commitment never wavers; nor does the excellence of the playing
falter. Others may find this a less empty work than I do in
which case they will find that this performance delivers full
Happily, as Naxos discs are relatively inexpensive one can still
invest for the sake of the performance of the Sixth Symphony,
which is what I recommend that readers do. I shall certainly
return to Petrenko’s fine version of that symphony but I doubt
I shall often listen again to the egregious Twelfth.
Reviews of the Petrenko Shostakovich cycle on MusicWeb International
Symphonies 1 and 3
Symphonies 5 and 9
Symphony 11 and an alternative view