Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No 15 in A major, Op. 141 (1971)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. live 17-19, 21 March 2010, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam. DSD
RCO LIVE RCO11003 [47:11]
A few months ago I reviewed the new recording of Shostakovich’s last symphony by Vasily Petrenko, which is part of his Naxos cycle of the symphonies with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. I was pretty enthusiastic, concluding that the recording “strikes me as being excellent both in terms of the interpretation and the execution.” However, my colleague, Dan Morgan, was much less admiring and his views found support in an interesting discussion on the MusicWeb Message Board. One name that cropped up more than once as a comparator to Petrenko was that of Bernard Haitink. I’ve admired this excellent and deeply musical conductor for as long as I can remember but for some reason I missed most of his Decca Shostakovich symphony cycle, including the Fifteenth. It seemed to me that it would be interesting to hear him in that symphony so a few weeks ago I invested in a copy of this much more recent recording.
Listening to Haitink’s complete performance convinced me that here is a very considerable interpretation, splendidly played and very well recorded. I then decided to compare this recording with the Petrenko account so I listened to each movement in turn in both versions. What emerged was that Petrenko comes out pretty well in the comparison but in two movements I think there is a clear winner.
Honours are pretty even in the first movement. Both conductors adopt similar tempi and, indeed, the overall timings of their respective performances are within three seconds of each other. Petrenko drives the music forward and his RLPO play crisply and with spirit. The music emerges as highly charged and energetic. I detect a bit more weight of tone from the Dutch orchestra, the strings in particular, though that may be due not just to the excellence of the players but also to the famed acoustics of the Concertgebouw and also the skill of the RCOI Live engineers. If I say that Petrenko’s way with the music sounds a little more brash I don’t mean that in a derogatory way; it suits the music.
The opening seven minutes or so of the second movement mainly comprise music that is spare in texture - chiefly alternating a brass chorale from the Eleventh symphony and yearning cello solos. Petrenko does well to sustain the tension across these paragraphs and the dissonant wind chords that punctuate the music are suitably glacial. If anything, Haitink’s brass players are even more sombre and imposing of tone and the RCO’s principal cello is outstanding. Haitink is equally successful in sustaining the tension and the thread of the musical argument across these desolate pages. Eventually an important trombone solo is reached. Up to this point Petrenko has been a bit more spacious - the trombone solo begins at 7:55 in his recording and at 6:52 in Haitink’s - perhaps the RCO reading is a bit more strongly focused. However, when we reach the trombone solo I have a clear preference for the Dutch performance. The Liverpool trombonist is excellent but the Dutch player’s tone has an edge to it that imparts a greater sense of foreboding. Eventually Shostakovich achieves a huge trademark climax (at 11:01 in Petrenko’s reading, 9:57 in Haitink’s) and the impact is all the greater because this is the first time - and note how far into the movement we are - that we have heard the full orchestra. Petrenko handles that climax very well but I sense a bit more malevolence in the gripping way that Haitink delivers it. In his hands the brass chorale at the end of the movement is really desolate.
In the brief third movement Haitink conveys the sardonic humour though, by the side of Petrenko, his performance is more weighty - note the firm double bass chords in the opening pages in his reading - and serious. Petrenko’s approach is more pungent and also more nimble and fleet of foot. With him you sense Till Eulenspiegel thumbing his nose, which is surely right. The music occasionally sounds a little clipped, not least in the solo violin passages, but overall Petrenko is a clear winner here.
However, I believe that the fourth movement swings the balance in Haitink’s favour. Both versions start well though Haitink’s brass are darker and more full of foreboding in the Wagner quotations at the outset. Where think things tilt decisively is at the long violin theme immediately after the three-note Tristan motif - at 1:18 in Petrenko’s performance, 1:23 with Haitink. Haitink makes the long string melody flow better than Petrenko; the younger conductor’s speed sounds more laboured while the elder is completely convincing . Michael Steinberg hits the nail on the head in describing this theme as “wanly disconsolate”; Petrenko makes it sound a bit too tragic and I think that his speed is a bit too slow for a passage that’s marked Allegretto; Haitink is just right and strikes a more enigmatic note. I emphasise this point because so much of what follows flows from this melody and the mood it establishes. It seems to me that the string-dominated passacaglia that follows is more persuasive at the Dutchman’s more purposeful tempo. As the movement’s big climax approaches, because his basic tempo is somewhat swifter, Haitink is able to invest the build-up with more urgency. Just to give you an indication of relative speeds - and remember both performances arrived at the start of the violin melody at about the same time - Haitink gets to the climax at 8:54, Petrenko at 10:08. Both conductors deliver the climax powerfully though, for me, Haitink’s way with it is the darker and more forbidding - his brass and horns are superbly telling hereabouts. One other point worthy of note, is that the bass line of the passacaglia emerges with just a bit more clarity in the RCO Live recording. The Dutch recording of the closing pages is a bit better than the Naxos sound; there’s a little more distance on the tinkling, chattering percussion.
So, while Petrenko’s recording emerges with great credit from a detailed comparison the Haitink has the edge, especially in the finale. I still think that Petrenko offers a fine recording of this enigmatic symphony but Haitink brings more gravitas to the score - though that works against him in the third movement - and delves more deeply below the music’s surface than does his young colleague. The Naxos recording is very good but the RCO Live sound is even better - it’s a hybrid SACD but I’ve listened to it as a conventional CD. Richard Whitehouse’s Naxos notes have the edge, especially for someone coming new to the work, though RCO Live provide some musical examples, which is handy. As for the playing, the RLPO are by no means put in the shade; they offer excellent playing but there are times when the extra depth of tone reminds one that on the Dutch disc one is listening to one of the world’s great orchestras.
However, it must be pointed out that the Haitink disc is offered at full price and, with no coupling, represents distinctly short measure while Petrenko, at a lower price point, includes the Second Symphony. I suppose that’s a question of price versus value.
In summary, anyone who has already invested in the Petrenko recording of the Fifteenth or anyone wanting a good recording at less than full price can rest content. However, this Haitink performance, taped at concerts, offers a deep and impressive view of a symphony that can be elusive. This is an excellent reminder of what a superb and distinguished conductor Bernard Haitink is and it’s a recording that I’m very glad that I have added to my collection.
John Quinn
Haitink offers a deep and impressive view of Shostakovich’s last symphony.