Vasily Petrenko’s Shostakovich cycle reaches its penultimate instalment with the harrowing Fourteenth Symphony. I can dimly remember listening to the broadcast of the 1970 UK premiere of this symphony, conducted by its dedicatee, Benjamin Britten. I was a callow teenager in those days and though I knew several of the purely orchestral symphonies I was unprepared for the bleakness of this symphony and the stark angularity of much of the writing: in short, I could make neither head nor tail of it – I’m sure the absence of texts and translations didn’t help. Even now, though, more than forty years later when I hope I am much more familiar with Shostakovich’s music, I still find the Fourteenth a forbidding work. It represents the composer at his most uncompromising and introspective.
Though I’ve not heard Mark Wigglesworth’s recording of this symphony I have read his notes in which, like Richard Whitehouse, the annotator for this Petrenko recording, he points out that the symphony was composed while Shostakovich was in hospital in early 1969. However, Wigglesworth goes into a little more detail about this than Whitehouse, drawing attention to the fact that the score was completed within a month and its orchestration within two further weeks. Wigglesworth quotes from a letter that Shostakovich wrote to his friend Isaac Glikman: ‘1 wrote very fast. I was afraid something would happen to me like, for instance, my right hand would give up working altogether, or I’d suddenly go blind or something. I was pretty tortured by these ideas.’
The entire score is concerned with death and various reflections on that subject. Shostakovich scored the work for soprano and bass soloists accompanied by an orchestra comprising nineteen strings and four percussionists. He set eleven poems by Lorca, Apollinaire, Wilhelm Kuchelbecker and Rilke. As Richard Whitehouse points out, these poets have one thing in common, though this may be coincidental: they all died young. The texts are sung in Russian translations though the composer did sanction performance in the original language. That option was followed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and his wife, Julia Varady in Haitink’s 1981 Concertgebouw version. There’s a small slip in the Naxos booklet which states that these two singers also took part with Kirill Kondrashin in his 1974 Moscow Philharmonic recording. In fact Kondrashin’s soloists were Yevgenia Tselovalnik and Yevgeny Nestorenko, singing in Russian. So far as I know, Haitink’s is the only polyglot recording.
In appraising this new Petrenko recording it’s been very interesting to compare it with two other recordings: the aforementioned Kondrashin version and the recording made in 1999 or 2000 by Rudolf Barshai as part of his complete cycle, now on Brilliant Classics (review). Barshai has a claim to particular authority in this score as he conducted the first performances and, says Richard Whitehouse, was ‘sounded out … (by the composer) … on performance practicalities prior to the rehearsals for the first performances.
Petrenko has two soloists whose names were previously unknown to me: the Israeli soprano, Gal James and the Russian bass, Alexander Vinogradov. Both are in their mid-thirties and both make very favourable impressions.
In the first song, Lorca’s ‘De Profundis’, Vinogradov’s voice has sepulchral depth and is firm and focused of tone. This is bleak, desolate music and Petrenko and his orchestra, as well as the soloist, distil a chilling atmosphere. Kondrashin has the inestimable advantage of the great Yevgeny Nestorenko as his bass – though I was mildly surprised to discover that Nestorenko, who was born in 1938, would have been at a similar age to Vinogradov at the time of recording the work: I mean no disrespect to Vinogradov but Nestorenko’s voice, which is even more cavernous and imposing, gives his singing slightly more gravitas. Barshai, whose pace is marginally swifter than either Petrenko or Kondrashin, has Vladimir Vaneev. He also sings well but the initial impression is that his voice is not quite as full-toned nor is it as characterful as those of his two rivals.
The second song, another Lorca setting, ‘Malagueña’, introduces the soprano. Gal James has a clear, strongly projected voice. Arguably she lacks the last degree of weight and dramatic heft of a typical Russian dramatic soprano – the role was written with Vishnevskaya in mind, I believe – notwithstanding that, she is still highly convincing and, as we shall see, her voice enables her to bring other things to this role. I’m unsure of the nationality of Barshai’s soprano, Alia Simoni, but she produces a suitably Slavic timbre and her delivery is very dramatic. Kondrashin really tears into the opening of the song and his soprano, Yevgenia Tselovalnik, offers the authentic Russian sound. She projects the music with huge conviction and dramatic power yet the notes remain totally secure.
The third song, Apollinaire’s ‘Lorelei’, features both singers. Kondrashin’s soloists are searingly dramatic here, as is his conducting. Barshai’s bass, though good, is the least commanding of the three though the soprano is very committed. Petrenko and his singers offer an intensely dramatic telling of the story. Vinogradov impresses again but it’s Gal James who really captures the attention. You’ll recall I said her voice enables her to bring something rather different to this role. Partway through the song the tumultuous progress of the music is halted by a tolling bell (5:07) after which the soprano’s line is intense and touching for the remainder of the song. All three sopranos do this passage very well but the slightly lighter timbre of Miss James’s voice is an asset; I find her very affecting yet still dramatic in these pages.
All three sopranos also excel in the intense setting of Apollinaire’s ‘The Suicide’. By now I have the impression that Alia Simoni’s voice and style lies somewhere between that of Yevgenia Tselovalnik, and the slightly more ‘Western’ approach of Gal James. In their different ways I prefer Tselovalnik and James.
Arguably, the emotional heart of the work is the setting for bass of another Apollinaire poem, ‘At the Santé Prison’. This is an extraordinary composition: it’s music of the dungeon – perhaps of the Gulag? The music seems devoid of light or hope. Petrenko’s performance is notably more spacious than those of his two rivals: he takes 9:55 whereas Barshai takes 8:20 and Kondrashin 8:44. The main reason for the longer playing time in Petrenko’s interpretation is that he is slower in the episode that begins with the very quiet pizzicato march (2:23). Vinogradov’s performance of this harrowing music is excellent and very involving. He sings with great intensity and he deploys a wide range of vocal colour, ranging from pale and wan towards the end to full-on black tone elsewhere. Nestorenko and Kondrashin provide a riveting experience. Nestorenko has huge vocal resources at his command and he brings a unique authority and intensity to the music. Vaneev, singing for Barshai, is technically sound but he lacks the vocal presence and emotional commitment of the other two basses.
It’s a similar story in the Kuchelbecker setting, ‘O, Delvig, Delvig!’ Vinogradov offers a super legato line and rich tone; he also receives excellent support from Petrenko and the orchestra. Vaneev sings well enough but I much prefer Vinogradov even though Barshai’s conducting is more intense than Petrenko’s. Nestorenko is in a different league, however. There’s a Boris-like majesty and great charisma to his singing.
I’ve focused on the conductors and singers: how do the respective orchestras fare in this mercilessly exposed and highly demanding music? There’s some rawness in the tone of Kondrashin’s Moscow Philharmonic but that’s not inappropriate. Occasionally the tuning in the lower strings is less than unanimous and the recording is rather close. All that said, the rawness is part of the experience. Barshai’s orchestra is good and benefits from a much more modern recording. The RLPO has played very well indeed for Petrenko throughout his Shostakovich cycle and they are on similarly good form here. They have been well recorded by Naxos – the percussion is very well reported. In passing we may note that Barshai gets through the symphony in just 45:28. Petrenko’s overall timing of 49:38 compares with Kondrashin’s 48:45 and the main discrepancy between the two comes in the seventh song, as I mentioned earlier.
Petrenko has much better soloists than Barshai. Kondrashin’s soloists are very fine, with Nestorenko especially impressive. The Kondrashin interpretation and performances, taken as a whole, offers a uniquely intense experience. However, I don’t believe the performance is available separately. It has been available as part of the conductor’s complete Shostakovich symphony cycle (review) but currently that’s not easy to obtain.
In any case this new Petrenko recording has much to commend it; it’s one of the best performances in his cycle to date. I’m delighted to find that even though this is not a full-price issue, Naxos have not stinted and have provided the transliterated Russian texts and English translations in the booklet. That’s crucial to appreciating this symphony and I hope they’ll do the same when Petrenko’s recording of the Thirteenth is issued. I’m less impressed with the short playing time, however. I recognise that to some extent Naxos have had their hands tied because these recordings have been made as Petrenko’s cycle has evolved in performance in Liverpool. However, surely it would have been possible to provide a ‘filler’? With such an excellent bass available the obvious choice would have been Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death in Shostakovich’s 1962 orchestration since his work on that score in many ways acted as a springboard for this challenging symphony.
Anyone who has been following the Petrenko cycle can add this latest instalment with confidence. I wait with no little interest to hear the final volume: the dark and magnificent Thirteenth Symphony.
Masterwork Index: Symphony 14
Reviews of the Petrenko Shostakovich cycle on MusicWeb International
Symphonies 1 and 3
Symphonies 2 and 15
Symphonies 5 and 9
Symphonies 6 and 12
Symphony 11 and an alternative view