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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 43 (1936) [64:59]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. 9-10 February 2013, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, UK
NAXOS 8.573188 [64:59]

Liverpudlians love him - as does just about everyone else - and there’s no doubt that Vasily Petrenko has revitalised the RLPO since he became their principal conductor in 2005. Even the camera adores him, as Naxos’s handsome cover portraits so amply demonstrate, but behind the maestro’s boyish grin lurks … what exactly? His bright, glitzy live performances of Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky suggest not very much, as does his highly proficient but equally superficial Shostakovich cycle. I’ve reviewed several of the discs in that series and listened to others, and at no time have I felt his accounts come anywhere near the best available. Maybe, just maybe, this one will be different.
There’s no shortage of hard-hitting performances of the Fourth, among them versions by Kiril Kondrashin (Moscow, Amsterdam and Dresden), Neeme Järvi (Chandos) and, most recently, Mark Wigglesworth (BIS) and Daniel Raiskin (C-Avi). The last two are exceptional, for they bring out the breath-taking originality and ferocious energy of this seed-bed score; not only that, they are superbly recorded. It’s a measure of the deep impact of those readings that one feels both violated and liberated at the end, not to mention utterly convinced of the cogency and thrust of this remarkable piece.
The start of Petrenko’s Allegretto is outwardly arresting - it’s bright and keenly felt - but alongside our front-runners it seems curiously rhetorical. The most compelling Fourths are those where the opening is delivered with maximum laceration; this then sets in train a sequence of wild and trenchant music that, without a context, can so easily seem vacuous and/or banal. Wigglesworth and Raiskin dig deep and uncover a dark and thrilling sub-text, whereas Petrenko, pawing at the soil, finds little to engage or inspire.
Petrenko paces the first movement well at the outset, but tension slackens alarmingly thereafter. Rather than press ahead, delighting in Shostakovich’s raunchy sound-world he‘s much too intent on manicure and polish. Indeed, the RLPO are in terrific shape and the forensic - slightly fierce - recording picks up the tiniest details; what a pity that the perky march rhythms lack menace and that the sudden car-crash of a climax at 7:04 passes for precious little. The rest of the movement is a series of diverting, self-indulgent doodles; while pleasing in themselves they add nothing to the essential narrative.
We’ve been here before, and all too often. This weak, indecisive Allegretto is no match for the strength and thrust of the best. Even those percussion-led crescendi fall flat, and the pent-up tension of the follow-up is nothing more than a mild attack of the vapours. It’s all so damn tentative, a word that aptly describes Petrenko’s colourful but meandering middle movement. Yet again I was struck by the oodles of loving detail and the fine playing, but really these are just sideshows that detract from the main event.
Pacing remains a problem throughout - Petrenko is much too measured in the latter half of the equivocal Moderato con moto - and at the start of the Largo those dragging, quasi-Mahlerian passages are soporific in the extreme. There is absolutely no coherence to this infuriating Fourth, and the grinding, see-saw figures here - oddly liberating in the more dramatically astute accounts - are a perfect metaphor for Petrenko’s performance as a whole. Moreover, our maestro even guts the score of its sardonic asides and its tendency to lurch and leer; spectral interventions appear out of place and the usually cathartic perorations feel entirely arbitrary.
Try as I might I simply cannot fathom why this man’s Shostakovich is so highly regarded. At best his readings of these great symphonies are workmanlike; at worst they are devoid of essential character and emotional/dynamic polarities.
Shostakovich-lite; Petrenko’s as perplexing as ever.
Dan Morgan   

Masterwork Index: Shostakovich symphony 4