Dmitry SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 10 (1924/5) [33:23]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, ‘The First of May’, Op. 20 (1929)* [31:10]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir* and Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. 28-29 July and *22-23 June, 2010, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool. DDD
Transliterated Russian text and English translation included
NAXOS 8.572396 [64:33]
Shostakovich’s First Symphony is an amazingly precocious achievement. It’s much more than that: it’s also a work of genuine substance. Vasily Petrenko and the RLPO have impressed me greatly in the issues that I’ve heard to date from their Shostakovich symphony cycle and their account of the First is fully up to the standards so far set.
The first movement contains a good deal of laconic, pithy music and Petrenko and his team discharge these very well, with crisp articulate playing. I like the insouciant way the waltz-like passages are done. This is a movement of several moods and Petrenko conveys them successfully. He ensures that the nimble second movement is delivered with great energy and dynamism.
The slow movement takes the work onto a different and deeper level of expression. It’s launched by an eloquent, keening oboe solo that’s very well done here and the cello soloist who follows on is not to be outdone in terms of expressiveness. Petrenko gives the movement the full weight of emotional gravitas (one may marvel at the fervour of the eighteen-year old composer.) The playing of the RLPO is excellent, not least in the dynamic contrast they provide: there are several stretches of really hushed playing yet the climaxes, when they come, are towering. Overall, this is a highly convincing reading of the movement. The finale can seem episodic but Petrenko knits it all together expertly. The imposing passage (from 6:28 to the end) following the timpani solo is powerfully done. This is a very successful rendition of Shostakovich’s first and very impressive essay in symphonic form.
I’ve never been able to get to grips with the Third Symphony, which I first heard decades ago in Morton Gould’s RCA version on LP. In fact so incomprehensible did I find it that I admit that I gave up on the piece and I haven’t heard it for years, other than playing it through when I acquired Rudolf Barshai’s cycle. In the interim, however, I’ve come to have some understanding of – and a huge admiration for – the Fourth Symphony, which I believe is one of the composer’s most interesting and important works, though it’s a very challenging piece for the listener. Returning now to the Third in this recording, I suspect that my appetite for the Fourth may have helped me to an appreciation of its predecessor.
I’ve also been helped by Richard Whitehouse’s booklet note. Not only does he outline the background to the work very well but he’s also very good at describing the music and Naxos helpfully divide it up into six separate tracks so it’s very easy to follow Mr Whitehouse’s clear analysis. I was intrigued to learn that the composer declared that the symphony depicts “the festive spirit of peaceful construction.” I have to say I don’t really get that – but I may in time.
The opening, which features an extended, subdued duet for two clarinets as the introduction to the first movement proper, gives little hint of what’s to follow. When the main allegro is reached the pace and the tension of the music pick up appreciably. Truly, this is driven music – or at least it is in Petrenko’s hands - and one relishes the bristling, agile playing of the RLPO. I felt that some passages presage elements of the first movement of the Fourth Symphony. However, while Petrenko and his orchestra do their collective best for Shostakovich’s writing I have to confess that I don’t really discern any progress or development in the music. Perhaps that’s because I find it well-nigh impossible to detect – and cling on to – any significant thematic material. It’s probably there but, despite the clarity of the playing and the recording. I think Shostakovich has just buried it under a tumult of often dense scoring.
The slow second movement is easier to appreciate, I find – if not, perhaps, to love. The hushed, spare textures in the opening string-dominated paragraphs will surely expose any imprecision of tuning or ensemble but the RLPO acquit themselves extremely well. Indeed, the string section plays with great eloquence in this movement. The third movement, which I hesitate to label as a ‘scherzo’ since it seems anything but jocular, is fast and furious – and, to my ears, rather grim. The scoring is often strident and this is not an easy listen. The thunderous, aggressive climax reminds me very much of the comparable passage in the third movement of the Eighth Symphony, which lay some fourteen years in the future.
The finale is prefaced by a portentous and musically rather fragmentary introduction. Then Shostakovich deploys an SATB chorus to declaim a Revolutionary poem by one Semyon Kirsanov. Frankly, the words amount to little more than revolutionary tosh but one must make allowances for the oppressive political climate in which these people were living and working. The RLPO Choir is suitably fervent in its delivery but I can’t work up much enthusiasm – no, make that any enthusiasm - for this part of the work. Neither the music nor the words seem to have a great deal of connection with what we’ve heard up to this point and, as Richard Whitehouse very fairly says “there is little space for any emotional progression.” To be honest, this part of the work is banal and I was put in mind of part of the famous description of the Seventh Symphony lying on the last degree of platitude.
So, I can’t say that I’m still greatly convinced by the piece overall. However, Vasily Petrenko and the RLPO make the best possible case for this symphony, however flawed it may be, and one can see, fleetingly at least, where the Fourth Symphony has its roots. One may not like the Third Symphony but a recording such as this makes it plain that one cannot ignore or overlook it.
The recorded sound in both performances is very good. As I’ve already indicated, both pieces are very well played and they’re also nicely illuminated in the booklet note, which is extremely important in the case of the unfamiliar Third. This is another impressive instalment in Vasily Petrenko’s Shostakovich cycle.

John Quinn
Another impressive instalment in Vasily Petrenko’s Shostakovich cycle.