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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not quite the great performance we all hoped for ......., 11 Oct 2013
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This review is from: Shostakovich: Symphony No.4 [Vasily Petrenko] [Naxos: 8.573188] (Audio CD)
I think most readers will know about the troubled birth of this symphony, Shostakovich's music falling out of favour with the Soviet authorities with the "Chaos Instead of Music" article publishedin Pravda, the Soviet government controlled newspaper. Whilst the work that had so upset the authorities was his opera Lady Macbeth, it was made clear that to continue with the similarly inspired Fourth Symphony was to invite severe consequences, not just for the composer but also to all those who were to take part in performing it and so Shostakovich withdrew this magnificent symphony from performance during rehearsals for its premiere, no less. More trouble followed, since the was score entrusted to the conductor of its aborted premiere, Fritz Stiedry, who then lost it during the dark days of the Second World War, requiring it to be reconstructed from the orchestral parts many years after. It finally receiving its premiere in 1961, the earliest Shostakovich felt he could get away having such "radical" music played in public. After such a tormented start to life, it is all the more remarkable how well this work has fared in recordings, with practically every Shostakovich conductor of note having put down their interpretation for posterity (notable exceptions being Mravinsky, [Kurt] Sanderling and Bernstein) with hardly a bad performance between them.

Vasily Petrenko and his Royal Liverpool Philharmonic are certainly the new kids on the block in the world of classical music, their recordings and performances (especially of Russian music) attracting much note and critical acclaim. Their recording of the Shostakovich Fourth has been eagerly awaited and rushed released in September this year, after live performances of it in February (2013). Petrenko's cycle has so far garnered near universal praise, the only weak spot being perhaps the sound which on some machines (but not all) can appear "tinny" and lacking in bass. From the very outset of this recording it is clear the conductor has some very definite ideas about this music - after those opening shrill fanfares, Petrenko really brings out the martial nature of the opening theme, each note very staccato. He goes on to pace the opening movement very well, but one does notice the slightly unusual sound picture - I tried this recording on several machines with varying results, but ultimately I felt as if I sitting in the front row of the stalls, with the strings and woodwind very much to the fore, but with the brass and percussion further back. So when that furious fugato begins in the middle of the First Movement, the strings are very much in your face - all very exciting, especially at the ferocity with which the RLPO attack it (you can practically smell the rosin and see the hairs on the bow breaking!), yet when the percussion joins the party shortly after this point, they lack impact compared to all other recordings due to sounding "further back". Yes, you do hear the violin glissandos straight after this climax clearer than on any other recording (testimony to the conductor's care over even the smallest details, realised by some very fine playing of his orchestra) plus a host of other minutia from the score , but only at the expense of a loss to some of the shock and awe that this symphony should really bring. Moving on, I found the central Moderato con moto is a bit more moderato than con moto than I would like at Petrenko's speed as well, with the consequence that it sounded a bit anonymous. The last movement is much better, the final peroration done rather more grandly than usual without grinding to a halt as it almost does in Salonen's hands, but the balance issues noted earlier remain, with the woodwind theme here very much to the fore - so much so it almost sounds lyrical, which really isn't what anybody wants. Don't get me wrong, this is a very good performance - it just isn't the world-beater everybody hoped it would be.

So which versions do I consider the finest ? Well, Shostakovich Mavens will still want Salonen's recording of the Symphony (Shostakovich: Prologue To 'Orango'; Symphony No.4 ), which although is less successful than Petrenko's, is coupled with the very interesting - and more enjoyable than you would think - Orango, Shostakovich's aborted opera on the half man/half ape figure of the title. Similarly, Rostropovich's live account on Andante (Rostropovich conducts Shostakovich ) comes coupled with precious and rarely performed discarded sketches from the Fourth Symphony, plus a performance of the main work, slow, grim and monolithic that brings out the crushing power of this symphony greater than any other. Similarly, Kiril Kondrashin and the Moscow PO (Shostakovich: Symphony No.4 ) , the performers of the eventual premiere in 1961, bring a fervour and intensity to the premiere recording of the work that hasn't been quite matched since, although one has to concede that the recorded sound isn't the greatest. However, the recordings to which I keep returning to are Barshai's, Rattle's and Jarvi's. Rattle's (Shostakovich: Symphony No.4/Britten: Russian Funeral ) is a superbly thought through and executed reading; I learn something new about the construction of the score every time I hear it and truly admire Rattle's achievement; but that's the point, I really only admire it, rather than feel it really means something, even if it is still unique and individual enough for me to want to keep it in my collection. Jarvi and the Scottish National Orchestra on Chandos (Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 43 ) on the other hand sound positively possessed - Jarvi may not build up each climax with as much skill and subtlety as Rattle, but he captures the air of fear and desperation that must have gripped the Soviet Union at the time the symphony was written better than anyone. However, the performance which seems to capture both this desperation allied to a superbly thought-through reading, is Rudolf Barshai's (Shostakovich: Symphony No.4 ); if I could have only one performance in my collection, then it would have to be this one - and it's at bargain price too. Now please don't misunderstand me - Petrenko's is still a very fine performance, but in this company he loses half a star for his performance and Naxos lose another half for their slightly disappointing sound picture. At four stars out of five, it won't disgrace anyone's collection, it just isn't the great one we all hoped it would be.
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Showing 1-10 of 13 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 22 Oct 2013 17:13:59 BDT
KEN says:
Sorry, but you must try this recording on a more accurate system than you have been using.I attend concerts at the Phil regularly, and can tell you that on my system(which is very accurate both tonally and spacially) that the recording comes accross very close to the live performance.I never once experienced this so called "in your face" (strings)phenomenon.I do agree to a point that the percussion can sound a bit laid back(more to do with the sound engineering I think)but overall a very good recording and performance(especially).

In reply to an earlier post on 22 Oct 2013 20:15:50 BDT
Hi Ken - and thanks for your most interesting comments. Whilst I concede that I may not have a state of the art sound system, I did try this disc on different machines, with and without headphones and have tried to explain the results as best I can. For whether it is as a result of direction from the podium, or (in my view, more likely) the balance in the newly revamped Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, the end result of seemingly backward brass and percussion is still the same and, in my opinion, robs the symphony of some of the impact it should truly have. I note your comments about the truthfulness of the recording based upon your experiences, but I have friends who regularly go to Petrenko's concerts in Liverpool who have registered disappointment with the results Naxos have obtained from there, albeit I have not heard their views yet on this particular release. They are of the opinion that the revamp has robbed the hall of some of its depth and weight, a point Petrenko apparently tried to address in a recent Wagner concert there that you may even have gone to, by placing the basses on a raised platform to the left of the podium. Ultimately I'm left wondering if this has also contributed to the backward balance of the percussion and the brass in this recording, that the Naxos engineers don't seem to have been able to overcome and which I especially noted in the final part of the brass chorale climax to the finale. A comparison with Chung's stunningly recorded version of the very same symphony on DG from Philadelphia (made way back in 1994), only served to compound my disappointment with the results obtained by the Naxos engineers (not least since Petrenko's interpretation is so much better than Chung's). So whilst I am a big fan of the Petrenko/RLPO partnership and hope to hear their Belshazzar Feast scheduled for next year (somehow), I couldn't award 5 stars in view of there being other, better all-round performances.

In reply to an earlier post on 26 Oct 2013 07:09:30 BDT
I'm interested in your alternative recommendations, so thanks for those. Two points bother me in your review, though. The first is the placement of the brass and percussion, which really has little to do with overall musical quality. If Horowitz gave a stunning reading would it be fair to say "but he was too far back"? More importantly, you don't for a moment consider what Petrenko is trying to do, which is to soften the Fourth's abrasive, assaultive quality. iNdeed, your review doesn't try to assess what his interpretation is about. You rush too quickly to accept that older readings have it right and he doesn't.

You are incredibly fortunate in the uK. In Jurowski and Petrenko you have conductors of the highest promise, especially in the Russian repertoire. They deserve to be approached on their own terms, which are likely to be more musical and insightful than we casual reviewers suppose.

In reply to an earlier post on 26 Oct 2013 16:03:35 BDT
Many thanks for your insights, SFL. I wrote this review having lived with it for a couple of weeks after having undertaken a project which in the end found me listening to over 20 versions of this symphony ! (you can read the results here if you like: ).
I therefore do note your opinion that Petrenko may be trying to soften the Fourth's more abrasive, assaultive qualities and of course he is entitled to interpret the symphony in any way he likes; however, it DOES sound as if the brass and percussion are placed further back in the sound picture, a point I note has also been made by another reviewer, JF Law, in the comments section of Mr Roy's review. Whether this is deliberate, or rather than a quirk of concert hall balance, I cannot state conclusively, but it does rather soften the impact of this mighty symphony for me, a point I have tried to make in my review.
That said, I do agree with your comments that we are (currently) very lucky to have both Jurowski and Petrenko practising their craft here in the UK, even if I would counter that we don't get quite as much sunshine as Santa Fe listeners! Since I am closer to London I get to see far more of the former than the latter, but what strikes me in particular about the Jurowski is the breadth of his repertoire and the subsequent imagination he puts into his concert planning. A concert of Christmas music I attended a couple years back featured composers as diverse as Bach, Mendelssohn, Vaughan Williams and Honegger being quite typical - and generous; lucky indeed !
With best wishes,

In reply to an earlier post on 26 Oct 2013 18:50:31 BDT
Yes, the LPO released that Christmas program as a CD on their own label. Petrenko and Jurowski aren't that different in age, but Jurowski has accomplished considerably more, not just by his wide repertoire, which includes a good deal of contemporary music and ventures into period style, but by his position as the most in-demand opera conductor in the world. On trips to the UK I've herd him and Petrenko perhaps six times each, and I've gathered about twenty each of their broadcast concerts, so I can be counted as a fan.

In reply to an earlier post on 29 Oct 2013 15:49:13 GMT
Yes, that's the concert - missed my train home too, since it went on so long ! Agree with you about Jurowski and opera as well, but you may already know Petrenko has also conducted Tristan as well as Tosca in concert in Liverpool over the last year or so too, so not far behind !

In reply to an earlier post on 29 Oct 2013 17:21:10 GMT
I wonder how he fared trying to find adequate singers for Tristan. Some conductors stay away from the opera pit - Mravinsky, so far as I know, Temirkanov, Bernstein (with a handful of exceptions), Ormandy, Tilson Thomas, etc.

In reply to an earlier post on 30 Oct 2013 22:04:49 GMT
You won't be surprised to learn that Maestro Petrenko has no trouble securing the services of the brightest singing luminaries for his shows ! His Isolde was Michelle De Young, no less, whilst his Tristan and Mark where the up and coming Richard Berkeley-Steele and Paul Whelan, all of whom got very fine reviews. A friend of mine was at this concert - he's a professional conductor himself with a far more sophisticated ear than I - and his only complaint was with Petrenko occasionally overwhelming his singers, probably a fault of a many a younger Wagner conductor. He rather regretted not going to the Tosca - with Bryn Terfel - which was rather a red letter day in Liverpool, however a mutual friend did and reported it to be superb, albeit with the orchestra a little too prominent once again.

I noted your own review by the way - thoughtful and interesting, if you don't mind me saying ? I found it useful anyway ! I'm not sure if I agree with you about Salonen though, finding him operating at a slightly lower voltage than many others, but other than that I will re-listen to the Petrenko again with your own thoughts in mind.

With best regards,


In reply to an earlier post on 30 Oct 2013 23:22:14 GMT
It's tempting to try the Glyndebourne's release of their recent Tristan under Jurowski, which was one of those "reduced and streamlined" productions that smaller opera houses sometimes attempt.

In reply to an earlier post on 16 Nov 2013 21:43:17 GMT
My sincere apologies for the delay in responding SF. I do remember the reviews of the live performances of this Tristan - it must have been truly intoxicating to have experienced this work in such an intimate theatre with such an orchestra like a London PO. That said, it does appear that on record the competition is truly fierce and reviews have not all been truly lukewarm - that said, what do reviewers know ?!
You probably already know that the highly respected BBC Radio 3 programme called CD Review chose to consider recordings of the Shostakovich Eighth Symphony last week, with a certain young Russian in Liverpool being given the nod over Mravinsky on BBC Legends and Haitink in Amsterdam on Decca ! I have to concede that particular Petrenko performance is indeed very good !
Warmest regards,
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