Top positive review
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Close to the top of a very long list
on 1 December 2009
At present I have nineteen different versions of the Shostakovich fifth in my classical collection, ranging from vintage versions by Mravinsky, Kondrashin and Ancerl to more modern ones by conductors like Gergiev, Ashkenazy and Temirkanov. Still I consider Petrenko's recording to be among the very finest beasts in my herd due to a well-thought-through aproach and a very consistent and in every detail finely crafted reading.
Many years ago I had the good fortune to be present at an unforgetable rehersal of the symphony our National Radio Orchestra had with the no longer active (but still with us at the tender age of 97!) German conductor Kurt Sanderling, who was in the audience at its first performance back in 1937, and who knew the conditions of Stalin's Russia first hand having fled there from Nazi Germany the year before. His many instructions to the orchestra regarding the numerous instances of the music tapping directly into the oppressive every-day life during the purges of the mid-thirties was a wonderful insight into this awsome piece of music, and with so many of those hints present in Petrenko's version, I all but feel that he must have been there on that occasion as well. Especially the many life-like details in the Party day persiflage of the second movement are done to perfection, and the stumbling, pleading notes of the little violin solo - according to Sanderling the musical likeness of a little girl attempting to recite a short thank-you speech to Stalin while handing over a bouquet of flowers - is moving in the extreme. The Largo movement is rather slow (too slow, I'm sure many would say - but then again the tempo is Largo, so how could it be?!), but unlike the equally slow ditto of Bernstein's 1979 recording it never turns stale, and it very effectively conveys the desolation and sense of insecurity Shostakovich no doubt felt at the time of its composition. Like Masur in his recent recording (live with the LPO, 2004) Petrenko drops the speed strangely early in the finale (at the start of the kettledrum motive), which must be a new way of reading the score that I never encountered before Masur, and which isn't particularly to my taste. It makes the whole finish, and the repeated A-notes in particular, drag almost unbearably, but maybe that is how Shostakovich would have wanted it, given that the Cyrillic letter "a" means "I" in Russian. As he put it to Sanderling regarding the victorious conclusion to the symphony: "It is about me, me, me - not them", them being the communist elite.
The ninth symphony is a very different animal to parade compared to the two-faced and sarcastic fifth. Its spirit of playful lightness contrasted with slow, contemplative passages came as a great surprise to the audience at its first performance, and it landed Shostakovich in hot water with the authorities yet again, this time to such a degree that he didn't compose a symphony again till after Stalin's death eight years later. Petrenko makes the best of light and darkness both, and though I doubt the symphony can be said to carry any deep philosophical message, it is given a very thorough and sympathetic reading.
The recording is very clear and spacious with fine technical playing by the RLPO. Only in the most voluminous tuttis the sound turns a bit distant and confined, whether due to limiting conditions at the recording location or to spare the equipment, I don't know.
All in all a most commendable disc available at an almost rediculous price.