on 28 May 2012
If you are of a certain age, Petrenko's pose on the cover looks amusingly like Jack Benny about to say "Well!" Petrenko's Shostakovich cycle, despite a peculiar lapse into ordinariness with Sym. 1 and 5, has become self-recommending, each installment a cause for curiosity and excitement. In some ways this CD is the best yet. For me, the highlight is a Fifteenth that far surpasses the best we have had to date.
Premiered in 1972 under the baton of Maxim Shostakovich, the composer's son, the Fifteenth did not win universal acclaim, as had the humanistic Thirteenth, set to Yevtushenko's scorching poetry denouncing Stalinist anti-semitism, or even the dark, melancholy Fourteenth, set to various poems about death. The enigma of the fifteenth begins with is disparity of material - many self-quotations, a "mad toy shop" opening romping along to Rossini's William Tell Over., a set of almost but not quite quotations from Tristan, a long mournful soliloquy for cello, a madcap, swirling Scherzo (the easiest movement of unriddle), and to end things, a tick-tock on the Chinese block that could be an old man's anxious waiting for death. Critics liked the bits and pieces, but few could make the score cohere in their heads, and neither could conductors. Shostakovich had repaired his rift with Mravinsky somewhat, I suppose, because after sitting out the thirteenth and Fourteenth, Mravinsky and his Leningrad orchestra turned in one of the best versions before Petrenko's.
but really, there's no comparison with any rival, Petrenko is so tuned in to the Fifteenth that he makes it sound easy. His intuitive grasp of phrasing enables him to lead a reading where every note means something musically. If you know the symphony, you will find dozens of differences in mood and tone, where Petrenko's touch is sure and just right, exposing the comical dancing-beat humor of the first movement, the tragic pensive inwardness of the second, and the near-manic desperation of the third. I was engrossed and astonished from moment to moment, and by the time the finale arrived, a movement that most conductors are thoroughly baffled by, Petrenko's calm, death-bed reflections on the past became deeply moving.
the previous reviewer was struck by how effective the Second is under Petrenko's baton, and I agree. Propaganda music isns't propaganda when you believe in the cause, and at this point in his career, Shostakovich believed in the Revolution, in optimistic modernism, and his own talents. The three would not mesh in the future; he became a far darker, more alienated composer as Stalinsim spread its shroud over Russia. but the Second is a rousing, sometimes jaunty work, without a banal moment in it. The Soviet cause became toxic, a subject for irony and despair, yet this bit of upbeat nostalgia works on its own terms.
Naxos delivers excellent, clear sound that captures the orchestra very well. It's close up but integrated enough so that the triumphant choruses in the Second emerge with perfect intelligibility. The Liverpool musicians adore their charismatic leader, and so do I. This is an exceptional Shostakovich recording, worthy to stand beside classics from Oistrakh, Rostropovich, Mravinsky, and Mitropoulos.