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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 13 in B flat minor Babi Yar Op. 113 (1962) [59:39]
Alexander Vinogradov (bass),
Male voices of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the Huddersfield Choral Society,
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. 27-29 September 2013, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, UK
Transliterated Russian texts and English translations included
NAXOS 8.573218 [59:39]

With its eleventh release Vasily Petrenko’s Shostakovich symphony cycle reaches its conclusion. If I recall correctly the series began with the Eleventh Symphony, recorded in 2008 and issued the following year. I don’t know whether the Thirteenth has been held back deliberately but it’s a fine way to end the cycle because over the years, as I’ve got to know it, I’ve come to believe that this is one of Shostakovich’s most profound symphonic utterances.

The symphony sets five poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (b. 1932), one of which, ‘Fears’, was written at Shostakovich’s specific request to form part of the symphony; it forms the fourth movement of the symphony. The symphony courted controversy from the start because the Soviet authorities took exception to some of the sentiments expressed by Yevtushenko in the poem ‘Babi Yar’, which was the poem that initially fired Shostakovich’s imagination. Here Yevtushenko condemned anti-Semitism in Russia and after the first few performances he came under strong pressure to make some modifications to the text; even when those were made the symphony was cold-shouldered by Soviet officialdom for some years. I learned from the booklet that the UK première of the symphony was given in 1971 by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under the ever-enterprising Sir Charles Groves. The late John Shirley-Quirk was the soloist. It’s good, therefore, to find the orchestra recording the symphony over forty years later.

The work’s first, courageous champion was Kirill Kondrashin, who conducted the premiere, so a recording by him was the obvious choice to compare with this Liverpudlian newcomer. I deliberately chose not to make comparisons with the Kondrashin reading that I reviewed not long ago since that is, apparently, a live performance whereas this Petrenko recording was made under studio conditions. Instead I’ve gone back to Kondrashin’s 1967 Melodiya studio recording – Richard Whitehouse gives the date as 1965 in his excellent notes but 1967 is the date on my Melodiya copy. This was the first recording of the work and Kondrashin’s soloist was Artur Eizen (1927-2008). Also taking part were the Bass Group of the Russian State Choral Chapel and the Moscow Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra (review). What has struck me in comparing these two recordings by Kondrashin and Petrenko is that though they are different I wouldn’t wish to say that one is ‘better’ than the other, save in two respects: Petrenko has the better orchestra and, perhaps unsurprisingly, his performance is conveyed in better sound.

I heard the first movement of this new Petrenko performance a little while ago in the MusicWeb Listening Studio and I was impressed. Further listening at home has confirmed that initial impression. Petrenko paces the opening well – Kondrashin is slightly more measured at first but, unlike Petrenko, soon speeds up a bit. Alexander Vinogradov, who impressed me in Petrenko’s recording of the Fourteenth Symphony (review) is again a fine soloist. My only concern comes at 4:14 where the chorus sings of blood spattered on the floor. Here the tempo increases but it seems to me that Petrenko accelerates too much. Kondrashin is steadier and thereby conveys more menace, though I have to say that Petrenko’s speed allows his men to sound like hectoring bullies, which is not inappropriate. A little later (5:56) the soloist resumes (‘O my Russian people…’). Here Vinogradov and the orchestra convey real sadness – and Petrenko has prepared for the passage very well. Eizen’s larger voice is less confessional here though his singing offers a different kind of intensity. Subsequently I like the way Vinogradov lightens his voice for the Anna Frank episode. Eizen hasn’t really got the type of voice for that effect; instead he and Kondrashin make their mark through swifter pacing of the passage, which is also effective. Petrenko is excellent in the sinister passage that begins ‘Someone’s coming’ (8:30), which is hushed and menacing at first – Kondrashin isn’t quite as imaginative here – and the colossal climax that follows is absolutely tremendous in its power. Here the RLPO brass are unleashed – though they don’t over-blow – while the percussion is awesomely reported. In the Kondrashin recording the less refined Melodiya sound and the natural timbre of the Moscow Philharmonic, 1960s vintage, conspire to produce a strident, massive climax which, though more raw than what’s produced in Liverpool, is terrifyingly authentic.

The second movement, ‘Humour’ provides an interesting contrast between the two conductors. Kondrashin’s performance sounds brash – that’s not a criticism in this music - and Eizen is bitingly sardonic, relishing the words and delivering them in a highly characterful way. He commands the scene and the Russian choir is very vital here. Petrenko’s pacing is rather faster and while he invests the music with great vigour and energy I think that his speed doesn’t allow his singers to inject quite so much irony and such precise articulation into the words. Despite this there’s still a lot of punch and sarcasm in the performance but I think the raw invective of Kondrashin’s performance carries the day here.

The last three movements are played without a break. In ‘In the Store’ Shostakovich and Yevtushenko conjure up a bleak, glacial vision of the hard, draining, demanding lifestyle of Soviet women. As portrayed here it was a life of unremitting drudgery and hardship, devoid of cheer and involving much manual labour and a poor diet. Petrenko is daringly slow, rather more measured than Kondrashin, and right from the start the music is chill and oppressive. The orchestra supports him superbly while the singers convey the stoic mood most acutely. Vinogradov is excellent – I greatly admire his mezza voce delivery of the stanza that begins ‘They wait quietly’. So consistently chilly is the atmosphere of the performance that the effect of the outraged climax (9:41) is all the greater. Eizen is very expressive and intense in the Kondrashin performance and his bigger voice means that he delivers the music in a different way to Vinogradov – though Vinogradov’s approach is no less valid. Kondrashin’s choir, which is the more forwardly recorded of the two, is magnificently sonorous at times, especially when singing quietly. I find Kondrashin’s performance disturbing and chilling but Petrenko, in a different way, also suggests powerfully the hopeless grind of daily life in Soviet Russia and his more measured speed is an asset, I think.

‘Fears’ begins quietly and balefully. The ominous, hushed opening is very well done by the RLPO and the important tuba solo is much better integrated than Kondrashin’s player manages – he’s neither as controlled nor subtle as his Liverpool counterpart. However, the raw, less homogenised sound of the Moscow Philharmonic does heighten the air of menace. Once again Vinogradov’s contribution is very fine and the orchestral accompaniment is etched very precisely. Petrenko’s choir almost whispers the first line of the last stanza – ‘Fears are dying out in Russia’ (9:08) – a point not made as effectively by Kondrashin’s choir.

The RLPO achieves great delicacy in the opening to ‘A Career’; this is another example of the greater finesse of Petrenko’s orchestra. Ostensibly the tone of this movement is a little lighter compared with what’s gone before but, as so often with this composer, you can sense that there are darker undercurrents not far below the surface. The music is well characterised by Vinogradov and at the start of the last stanza – ‘All those who strove towards the stratosphere’ – he displays fine depth of tone and an excellent legato. In the subdued closing pages (from 10:25) the RLPO play with great refinement. Neither the Moscow Philharmonic nor the Melodiya engineers can match that quality. In any case I’m not sure that Kondrashin seeks to play the close of the symphony in quite so subdued a fashion.

This is a very fine performance indeed by Vasily Petremko and his Liverpool forces – not forgetting the gentlemen from Huddersfield. The choral contribution is very fine indeed, giving the lie to the idea that only Russian or Eastern European singers have the right kind of timbre for this sort of music. It’s true that Kondrashin’s Russian choir brings a unique and very imposing Slavic sound to the music but the British singers are by no means put in the shade. The Moscow Philharmonic plays with great commitment for Kondrashin but there’s greater finesse to be heard on Merseyside and when it’s necessary to turn on the power the RLPO isn’t found wanting. Both soloists are excellent in their different ways. Eizen is totally commanding and his singing has a truly authentic sound to it. He characterises the music very strongly and the word I’d use about his contribution overall is ‘presence’. Vinogradov approaches the score in a different, less rhetorical way but his style brings its own rewards. He’s very responsive to the texts and I was seriously impressed by his performance. Kondrashin has a special authority in this score and he gives a performance that is often visceral but also full of insights. No admirer of Shostakovich should miss hearing him in this work. Petrenko has plenty of strength but also a good deal of finesse. He has an excellent feel for the score, which he paces well.

The Naxos sound is very good; indeed, it’s among the best in this series. When I first heard the recording in the Listening Studio I thought the choir had been recorded a little too distantly. I’ve revised that opinion since hearing the disc on my own equipment; there’s just the right amount of distance to give a sense of the space of the hall. The orchestra has been recorded very well indeed: the brass has ample presence, the percussion sounds thrilling, and while the climaxes resound with great power the many soft passages are ideally recorded. Richard Whitehouse’s notes have been a very good guide throughout this series and that’s the case here as well. Bravo to Naxos for providing the transliterated texts and English translations in the booklet, not something that can be taken for granted these days.

This, then, is the end of the Petrenko Shostakovich cycle. I’ve heard all the recordings and I think it’s a pretty substantial achievement. One or two of the performances have been slightly less good than the others but overall the standard has been very high. In general I’ve found Vasily Petrenko a reliable guide, though it’s important to say that some commentators have expressed reservations. Whatever one may feel about the interpretations I hope no one would dispute that the RLPO has performed with distinction throughout.

Petrenko’s way with Shostakovich isn’t the only way as my comparisons concerning just this symphony may indicate but anyone wishing to explore these important scores, especially the less familiar ones, will find these versions a reliable guide which may inspire you to hear the likes of Kondrashin and Mravinsky in these works. What these Petrenko recordings confirm above everything else is that the fifteen symphonies of Dmitry Shostakovich are a crucial contribution to the symphonic literature of the twentieth century.

John Quinn

And another review ...

Petrenko's direction of this music is thought-provoking. I had to listen twice before settling to his cool and analytical approach. The end result is no less valid but it does seem more a calculated than a subjective view. In the eponymous first movement the contrast between the slow music and the violent interruptions that punctuate it are extreme, appropriately so in this most extreme music. The men's voices of the RLPO chorus and the Huddersfield CS cope well with their important role. They are audibly not Russian basses, the weight is not there and one assumes few are Russian speakers. Even so there is conviction in their performance pointing to excellent rehearsal by both Petrenko and the respective chorus-masters. This movement particularly contains some of the most powerfully turbulent music Shostakovich ever wrote. The orchestra, though one suspects the string body may be smaller than that of the better financed major international orchestras, plays with precision and power. Alexander Vinogradov is an excellent bass and sings Yevtushenko's politically inflammatory text with passion and splendid attack. The second movement, Humour is taken very fast. Singer and orchestra rise brilliantly to Petrenko's demands, particularly the strings. There is real bounce to the rhythms which does much to emphasize the ironic words. This is 'humour' indeed.

In the store is a large-scale adagio written in praise of the stoicism of Russian women: the curiously unlikely scenario of a food market queue becomes a moving statement of faith in survival and a cry against people who would try to cheat those who just 'wait quietly' for their share. Vinogradov shows his power to float an unbroken line over the quiet and relentless orchestral tread. The furious outburst at the words 'It is shameful to short-change them' near the end of the movement gains that much more impact for following such restraint. Fears follows without a break. Shostakovich clearly references the sounds of Wagner's orchestra in Siegfried Act II when Siegfried awaits the appearance of the dragon from the dark of the cave. The words go on to tell of the disappearance of one set of fears, only to be replaced by new ones. Yevtushenko's implied criticisms are thinly disguised. Shostakovich's music is illustrative of all this; it writhes away in the lower strings gathering energy. Here the words in the booklet really do need following. Petrenko maintains extreme tension during these two long movements, over a third of the entire symphony. The finale A Career also follows without a break. The references to the careers of those who knew the truth but were afraid to speak, and those who spoke out and suffered for it, are contrasted, sometimes with violent and passionate outbursts, but mostly quietly. Yevtushenko wishes for a career that conceals the fact that one follows one's own course. Shostakovich chooses not to end this with any triumph, instead his orchestra subsides into silence closing with a single quiet note on the bell.

Hearing this very fine performance sent me in pursuit of other views of the work. Where Petrenko is crisp and precise, Rudolph Barshai and Dmitri Kitaenko, for example, are weighty and never seem to relax. Haitink conducted one of his very finest recorded performances of this work, a vast and grey account with the mighty Concertgebouw strings showing the greatest strength. Babi Yar demands and usually gets, absolute commitment. This Naxos CD becomes the eleventh recording in my collection and it holds its head high. No classical collector should be without this masterpiece, and Petrenko's version is up there with the best.

This completes Petrenko's very successful Shostakovich Symphony cycle. As always with Naxos, there are excellent, well researched notes. The sound is clean and allows orchestral detail through, even in the most strenuous passages. The Philharmonic Hall lends a nice spaciousness to proceedings. The volume needs to be set fairly high for the quietest passages to register.

Dave Billinge

Previous reviews: by Michael Cookson and Brian Wilson

Reviews of the Petrenko Shostakovich cycle on MusicWeb International
Symphonies 1 and 3
Symphonies 2 and 15
Symphony No 4
Symphonies 5 and 9
Symphonies 6 and 12
Symphony No 7
Symphony No 8
Symphony No 10
Symphony No 11 and an alternative view
Symphony No 14