The impressive Naxos cycle of Shostakovich symphonies from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO) under its principal conductor Vasily Petrenko draws to a close with this release. Scored for bass soloist, male chorus and large orchestra Shostakovich completed his Thirteenth Symphony in 1962.
As the work requires the singing of Russian texts in each of the five movements it is not surprising that this is one of the lesser performed symphonies in the concert hall. This relative neglect is no reflection on its quality; it is another of Shostakovich’s twentieth-century masterworks. In 2013 I heard a rare performance at the Philharmonie, Berlin sung by Günther Groissböck (bass) and the Estonischer Nationaler Männerchor with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under Marek Janowski.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem ‘Babi Yar’ is concerned with a ravine of that name near Kiev, the site of the slaughter of thousands of Jews carried out by Nazi forces and local collaborators during the Second World War. Yevtushenko’s poem had the temerity to reveal the Babi Yar massacre and expose a cover-up together with injustice of the refusal of the Soviet authorities to raise a monument at the site. Even though there had been a slight thaw in the political climate since the death of Stalin, Shostakovich was still taking a considerable chance by setting a text that had become a symbol for Jewish suffering. The Soviet authorities did their best to sabotage the first performance in December 1962 by putting pressure on key performers however it went ahead.
As with the recording of the Fourteenth Symphony
Petrenko has engaged the services of splendid vividly voiced Russian bass Alexander Vinogradov. For the male voices Petrenko uses two choruses: the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the Huddersfield Choral Society. There has been some criticism over vocal failings on this release attributed to the use of a non-Russian chorus. I can’t imagine Petrenko had too many alternative options other than transporting a Russian choir from say Moscow on a round trip of over 3,000 miles. In my view it would be very wrong to assume that only recordings with authentic Russian choral forces are good enough to be recommendable.
Petrenko pulls all his vocal and orchestral forces together tautly. His chosen tempi are satisfying and he uncovers much fine detail in the scoring. Taking centre-stage the indefatigable Vinogradov proves masterly from start to finish. With his rich and deeply cavernous voice he expressively conveys the harrowing text.
Often captivating the opening movement titled Babi Yar
- an Adagio
- is an example of Shostakovich at his best. It has a steely beauty coupled with an unsettling undertow. The text explains the Babi Yar massacre and the absence of a memorial.
Movement two Humour
- an Allegretto
- is a heavily sardonic Scherzo
about the power of humour but the underlying unsettling tone is never far away. The writing becomes weightier, increasingly angry and highly menacing. I was struck by the words “they’ve hidden humour away in dungeons, but they hadn’t a hope in hell …”
In the third movement, In the store
, a dark trudging mood prevails depicting the drudgery of the Russian women’s existence and the shortages they endure daily. Gradually the writing develops into a series of booming climaxes before dying away. Here the bass part has higher territory to negotiate but Vinogradov continues to sing magnificently.
Opening quietly and maintaining a gloomy, menacing tone the fourth movement - Largo
, entitled Fear
- sets words describing “Fears slithered everywhere like shadows, penetrating every floor.” A shattering climax at 8:49 is followed by a tolling bell.
There is a predominantly radiant quality to the final movement A Career
, an Allegretto
with some notable writing for woodwind followed by strings. The text tells of men from history who sacrificed their careers for their beliefs. Moods of dark menace develop but the ending has an ethereal calm with a celesta followed by a bell chime. I was struck by Vinogradov’s marvellous rendition of the final verse. Throughout he is in stunning form and this seems to inspire the choirs. Their occasional untidy emphasis and what they may lack in authentic Russian pronunciation they compensate with singing of clear focus and commitment.
The booklet notes are excellent with transliterated Russian texts and English translations. The engineers have excelled with clear, well balanced sonics. Ideally I would have liked a more prominent bell sound but that is my only quibble.
My established first choice in this work is the one conducted by Mariss Jansons with bass Sergei Aleksashkin and the Chor and Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks . Recorded by EMI with Jansons in 2005 this 2006 Grammy Award winning account no longer has it all its own way. This quite outstanding Naxos recording provides tough competition for any recording I have heard.
Masterwork Index: Shostakovich