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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 14, Op. 135 (1969)
Gal James (soprano); Alexander Vinogradov (bass)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. 4-5 May 2013, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool
Transliterated Russian texts and English translations included
NAXOS 8.573132 [49:36]

Vasily Petrenko’s RLPO Shostakovich cycle enters the final straight, with just the Thirteenth still to come. I stopped placing bets on this race early on, as I simply could not engage with this conductor’s outwardly brilliant yet inwardly sterile response to these symphonies. He faces formidable competition – Kondrashin, Haitink, Wigglesworth, Maxim Shostakovich and Kitaienko spring to mind – and thus far he’s been an also-ran. Which is why I approached his recording of the Fourteenth – a dark, profoundly moving meditation on death – with considerable trepidation.
First impressions are more favourable than I’d expected, with Alexander Vinogradov steady and intensely soulful in De profundis; even the skeletal accompaniment – just listen to those Stygian basses – is spot-on. Malagueña is less successful, thanks to rough, in-your-face strings and the sometimes overstretched soprano Gal James. As for Petrenko he follows the letter of the score, yet his glitzy, surface-skating performance resolutely refuses to engage with its unwavering spirit. This is a work encircled by darkness, yet you would hardly think so at this point. Haitink’s ‘polyglot version’ – to use John Quinn’s phrase – unsettles like few others; the Decca sound is excellent and the Concertgebouw are in peak form. Uniquely, Kondrashin – raw, unflinching – teeters on the very edge of the tarry pit.
Vinogradov blots his copybook with a somewhat morose account of Lorelei, but it’s Petrenko’s accomplished yet enervating contribution that does the most damage. There’s a world of difference between emotional desolation and the strange vacuum that blights this performance. That said the playing is excellent, and apart from those screechy strings the recording is pretty decent too. Happily James is under less pressure in much of The Suicide; she maintains a convincing line in the quieter moments, only to overreach herself later. The summoning bells aren’t as chilling as they can be, and the overall effect is frankly underwhelming.
Balances are close – the tom-tom in On Watch is far too prominent – but that’s a minor quibble compared with the intrinsic shortcomings of this reading as a whole. I wouldn’t have thought it possible to dilute the deeply etched devastation of In the Santé Prison, but despite an affecting response from Vinogradov Petrenko manages just that; take your pick of any of the versions mentioned above, all of which delve much, much deeper than this.
Without doubt Vinogradov is the saving grace here; indeed, his gripping rendition of Küchelbecker’s Delvig, O Delvig! is a deserving stand-out. What continues to perplex me though is Petrenko’s inability to divine what lies beyond the notes, to bring out their bitter, unrepentant colours; this music comes at or near the apogee of a life hard fought and hard won, and in other hands it comes across as such. Admittedly Petrenko gets tantalisingly close in The Death of the Poet – a marrow chiller if ever there was one – and James acquits herself well there too. Brevity is no bar to emotional range and Rilke’s Schlußstück (Conclusion) is a perfect example of that; sadly, it communicates precious little here.
Still no conversion, I’m afraid, despite polished playing and – from Vinogradov at least – a generally convincing and imaginative response to the words. No, the villain of the piece is Petrenko, whose critical adulation in this repertoire is mystifying. On the presentation side Naxos must be congratulated for providing transliterated texts and translations; other labels please note.
Another Petrenko run-through; Vinogradov impresses, though.
Dan Morgan
Previous review: John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Symphony 14