Since March of 2011 I have been reporting on two parallel projects to recording the complete symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich, one with Vasily Petrenko conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for Naxos and the other of Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra on the Mariinsky “house” label. While I have not been trying to treat this as a race, as of this past December, Gergiev’s had only released four CDs, while this past Tuesday Naxos released Petrenko’s eighth volume. Ironically, the most recent releases from both of these conductors involved the same symphony, Opus 60 (“Leningrad”) in C major.
It is worth reviewing a few of the key points I made in December when writing about the Gergiev recording. Most importantly, this symphony both bewildered and provoked many; and, ironically, for a change those most put off by the score were not Soviet officials. Instead, it was listeners in the West, many of whom had listened to either the broadcast or the recording of the American premiere given by Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra on July 19, 1942, who were perplexed. The Wikipedia page for this symphony quotes Virgil Thomson describing it as “written for the slow-witted, the not very musical and the distracted” in his review for the New York Herald Tribune.
The reason for such a negative reception in New York may be that this is the most Russian (or, perhaps, the most Soviet Russian) of Shostakovich’s symphonies. He was in Leningrad when the city came under siege by Adolf Hitler’s German Army Group North on September 8, 1941; and the first three movements of this symphony were completed during the first few weeks of that siege. Shostakovich continued his work even after evacuating Leningrad, and the symphony was completed in December of 1941, an impressively short period of time when one considers the conditions. The siege, on the other hand, continued until January 27, 1944.
This context cannot be ignored. It certainly has never been faced by any composer (of any nationality) working on American soil. In England William Walton did not deal with circumstances anywhere close to Shostakovich’s during the London Blitz, nor did Ralph Vaughan Williams. When I wrote about Gergiev’s recording, the closest I could come was to compare Opus 60 to what it would have been like for Daniel Defoe to have written A Journal of the Plague Year from first-hand experience (which he lacked).
From this point of view, I argued that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for a listener today to approach Opus 60 with an appropriate framework for aesthetic judgment. Ultimately, I approved of Gergiev taking the score at face value without trying to superimpose very much of his own expressiveness, contrasting distinctively with Toscanini and, even more notoriously, Leonard Bernstein, who had the chutzpah to perform this symphony with the New York Philharmonic before a Russian audience that included Shostakovich.
Now Petrenko has entered the field; and he, too, has shown the wisdom of taking that “face value” approach to the score. (After all, both of these conductors are too young to have experienced the Siege of Leningrad itself.) Furthermore, in performing the final movement of the Opus 47 (fifth) symphony in D minor, Petrenko established a talent for executing a gradual crescendo over a particularly lengthy duration. That talent serves him well on this recording, since it must be applied to two such crescendos. The more problematic occurs in the first movement, whose middle section involves an extended march theme that gets persistently repeated with changes in instrumentation with an obsessive style reminiscent of Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero.” The other is, again, the coda to the final movement. In both of these cases, Petrenko’s talent for managing the gradual increase of tension is as strong as it ever was.
Regarding overall pacing, I have to say that I am impressed at how close the timings of the individual movements on the Petrenko recording come to those on the Gergiev. This may well be an indication that both conductors took Shostakovich’s own metronome markings very seriously, reinforcing my proposition that the best approach to this music is simply to execute everything as the composer specified. Even with such a seemingly detached approach, there is far more than enough highly emotional expressiveness through which the music speaks.