It must be said straightaway that the orchestral playing on display
in this latest instalment of Petrenko’s Shostakovich cycle is an
absolute triumph. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic is in fabulous shape at
the moment and the playing is truly world class. I have many happy memories
of attending numerous concerts given by Sir Charles Groves and the orchestra
in the late 1970s but the execution in those days never reached the
extraordinary standard to be heard in this magnificent new recording.
The very opening bars of the first movement set out the stall
immediately - a drenched string tone and an incisive, forward momentum that
immediately catches the attention. Personally, I’ve always disliked
the long drawn out central march in this movement. Petrenko has almost
converted me. The repetitive nature of the material is rather compelling in
his hands and the range of dynamics and colour - with superb individual
orchestral solo contributions - makes this an exciting experience. The
control of the long crescendo is exemplary and the climax is shattering.
Once the march has come to its conclusion we are treated to some ravishing
string playing towards the end of the movement with the high, exposed first
violins singing out gloriously and perfectly in tune. The whole 28 minute
span of this epic movement never slackens for a moment.
The acoustic of the Philharmonic Hall is sweet and detailed. There
are two minor criticisms to be made about what is, otherwise,
state-of-the-art recording quality. First of all, for a domestic setting,
the dynamic range is huge. To hear the percussion clearly at the beginning
of the march you really need to turn up the volume but in doing so the loud
passages are likely to destroy your speakers. This is a problem regularly
encountered in the digital age. Secondly, the loudest climaxes seem to be
slightly cramped but that may be just the way the hall is captured by the
microphones. Other than that, from a technical perspective, the sound is
The second movement - an intermezzo rather than the usual scherzo -
immediately demonstrates the excellence of the string section. The Liverpool
orchestra has never sounded better than this. There is also a palpable sense
of inspiration running through all the sections of the orchestra and the
woodwind solos are full of character. At 5:40 the music bursts into life.
Brass and percussion ring out before the movement collapses back into its
shell and the strings bring the music to its conclusion.
The adagio conjures up the sound-world of Mahler. Yet again, the
strings are magnificent in the opening pages. The central section - a battle
between strings and brass underpinned with more martial side-drum effects -
is awe inspiring. There is a tangible white heat to the playing. The
Mahlerian string passage then returns and the movement finishes with an air
of foreboding, beautifully delivered by the low winds.
Having always thought that the central movements contain the best music
to be heard in the Leningrad
I must say that the normally bombastic
finale, not usually to my taste, isn’t the least bit bombastic
as presented here. It’s thrilling and absorbing. Petrenko makes
you hear the music anew and it really is edge-of-the-seat stuff. The
level of virtuosity at around 3:30 to 5:00 is amazing. It’s rhythmically
tight, relentless, riveting and also incredibly poised. Nothing ever
sounds rushed and the final triumphant bars bring the symphony to a
is a somewhat uneven work and it can’t be viewed
one of the composer’s strongest symphonies. To make it work you need a
who totally believes in the piece and then inspires an orchestra to deliver
goods. Petrenko and his players are flawless. This is an absolute bargain
goes straight to the top of the list. I’m not a huge fan of the
but I will certainly return regularly to this CD.
Masterwork Index: Shostakovich