Dmitry SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No.1 in F minor, Op.10 (1924-25) [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. July 2009 (No.1) and June 2010 (No.3), Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, England. DDD
With text and English translation
NAXOS 8.572396

Vasily Petrenko and the RLPO continue their acclaimed Shostakovich series on Naxos. The current installment puts the First and the Third symphonies together. They are two very different experiments of the young composer before he found his mature voice in the Fourth symphony.

Although a graduation work written by an 18-year old, the First is one of the most striking symphonies of the 20th century. It already shows the flourishing inspiration, the sure hand in composition and orchestration, the unmistakable style of the composer. The music is diverse, audacious, full of surprises and contrast. The mere idea of opposing a march and waltz as the first movement’s main subjects is brave and novel. The entire movement is a firework display of symphonic writing, concise and effective. Petrenko starts in half-voice, and does not bring the rampage on the listener’s head all at once. His waltz is relaxed and airy. All this makes the two climaxes the more overwhelming. The conductor changes the tempo between the subjects to emphasize the changes of character.

The second movement is a study in sharp contrast. The outer scherzo parts are brisk and grotesque. Petrenko noticeably slows down in the viscous Trio, so it becomes something like a hypnotic Russian folk-dance done by blank-eyed zombies. The coda returns to the Trio theme. This unexpectedly leaps at us completely wild and aggressive, even scary, a frantic phantasmagoria, then stops abruptly and dissolves into brooding bleakness.

The slow movement is a Mahlerian Adagio, wide and amorous, a warm sea of shimmering strings, persistently interrupted by brass motifs, like military signals. Petrenko paints the music big-scale on a large canvas, with a good sense of the overarching structure and development. His performance is measured but has good momentum.

The last movement seems to combine the previous three. If the joy of the finale of the Fifth Symphony may justly seem insincere, here all is candid. Young Shostakovich was on the rise, he believed in the bright future, and his music sings of youth, power, and delight, without any tongue in cheek. There are serious pages, loaded with reflection. There is unbuttoned jubilation here, somewhat rude, somewhat proletarian, but still speaking more to the heart than the artificial glee of the finales of the Second and Third symphonies. Petrenko brings out the coda in all its brazen glory. The orchestra plays with sharp precision.

The entire performance of the First symphony conveys the feeling of freshness, delight, and inspiration. I compared it to the 1971 NYPO/Bernstein on Sony. Petrenko’s approach is more aristocratic, while Bernstein is more “in your face” and down to earth. This could be partially caused by a closer recording in Bernstein’s case, which lets the soloing instruments stand out. Petrenko’s recording is more distant, so the orchestra sounds more uniformly, “from the side”, as in a concert. The recorded level is low in quiet parts – I often caught myself trying to increase the volume, only to find out that it was already at the maximum. But then when it is loud, it really is loud. All that said, the performance is tame if compared to Bernstein, who generates more tension, indulges more emotional excess, and is more heated. His approach suits this music better than the cooler Petrenko. I find this First too pure – and personally I prefer Bernstein’s healthy rudeness!

Shostakovich once declared that he would compose a symphony where no theme would be repeated twice. He succeeded in this it with his Symphony No.3. It is possible to warm to this work but I have yet to manage that. Still, it is a symphony by Shostakovich, so it can’t really be That Bad. It has his unmistakable voice, with many familiar traits. It shares the Ode-to-Joy-ish ending of the Second symphony, which was dedicated to the October Revolution. Whereas the Second symphony is more dramatic, the Third is more celebratory. In the Second, the minor key could symbolize the oppression of the working class before the Revolution, the struggle and the losses. What could be the meaning of the minor key in the story of happy socialist labor? As a result, there is almost no drama, and the mood is uniformly positive, glorifying the First of May: International Workers’ Day. For the ending, Soviet poet Semyon Kirsanov provided some standard “poster poetry”, and for those who lived a little under a communist regime these lyrics can provoke nauseating reflexes. One verse as an illustration: “Our First of May, / Burning in the hail of bullets, / Grasping the gun and bayonet, / Stormed the Tsar’s palace.” Don’t ask me how the First of May could grasp the bayonet, why it burned in bullets, and what in the world did it do in the end of October, when the Tsar’s palace was stormed – beats me! But logic was never a goal in propaganda.

The sections of the symphony flow seamlessly one into another, without separation between the movements. The slow introduction with soloing woodwinds is actually quite pleasant. The pace quickens into a frenetic run. This music is muscular and has a strong drive, although its enthusiasm borders on hysteria. A short humorous march leads into an Andante, cautious and unsure, but with general optimism. It provides a well-needed rest between the busy activities.

We are not permitted to rest for long. Happy socialist labor summons us to move forward and higher. This is a very Shostakovich-style Allegro, busy and noisy, with heroic rhetoric. A calmer stretch, pregnant with pompous importance, leads finally into the choral ending. The music is march-like, solemn and square. The good thing is that this part is short and not tiring at all. If you are prepared for it, it is not a surprise: it comes and is gone, and provides a triumphant ending to the symphony.

Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpudlians give us as fine a performance of the Third as we are likely to hear, and if they can’t make something more loveable from this symphony, it’s not their fault. The conducting is thoughtful, but with the salt of spontaneity. The chorus is excellent, with good body and diction. The orchestra sparkles. In these symphonies – as always in Shostakovich – the solo instruments are very important. All the instrumental soloists here do an excellent job.

The booklet, in the best Naxos traditions, is very helpful, providing a musical and historical analysis. All in all, this is another excellent disc in Petrenko’s impressive undertaking.

Oleg Ledeniov

see also review by John Quinn

Another excellent disc in Petrenko’s impressive undertaking.