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Steve Smith
Time Out New York, December 2010

A shattering account of Shostakovich’s urgent, anguished Eighth Symphony proved that conductor Vasily Petrenko is building a cycle for the ages.



Lisa Flynn
WFMT (Chicago), December 2010

Written during World War II, the unusually constructed Eighth Symphony is a powerful work built on striking contrasts. Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic continue their acclaimed series of the Shostakovich symphonies with a reading that brings out the differences between music which is at times unremittingly bleak and at others brutally intense.



John von Rhein
Chicago Tribune, December 2010

The young Russian maestro achieves a deeply personal identification with the bitter intensity and weary desolation that pervade this wartime masterpiece from 1943.




Arthur Lintgen
Fanfare, November 2010

Vasily Petrenko’s Shostakovich Eighth Symphony immediately makes the rest of his ongoing cycle something to be anticipated and reckoned with. Rather than being an unremitting exercise in doom and gloom as many Russian conductors play it, Petrenko shows a remarkable sense of the architectural ebb and flow of this masterpiece. The sound from top to bottom presents the massive climaxes like no other recording does. The third movement, with a closely miked trumpet solo that almost rivals André Previn’s recording with the London Symphony Orchestra (EMI), reaches a brutally forceful climax before the music collapses into the uneasy stillness of the fourth movement. Petrenko’s ending is delicate and ethereal rather than hinting at lushness, thus emphasizing the fragile nature of Shostakovich’s faint glimmer of hope.




Ronald E. Grames
Fanfare, November 2010

Vasily Petrenko’s cycle of Shostakovich symphonies on Naxos continues to impress, here with a harrowing performance of the wartime Eighth. No interminable brooding from this young conductor; the points are made viscerally and with a sense of destination sometimes missing from other performances. The implacable build to the climax of the first movement is shattering, the viciousness falling short of Mravinsky’s 1947 performance, as everyone else’s does, but draining nonetheless. The middle movements are suitable brutal or desolate, and the finale undermines the peace with Shostakovich’s bite-my-thumb-at-you sarcasm perfectly. This recording joins the Mravinsky and the Slatkin/Saint Louis as a top recommendation.



Raymond Tuttle
Fanfare, November 2010

It was with eagerness that I awaited this, the latest installment in Vasily Petrenko’s Shostakovich series with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. I reviewed Symphonies Nos. 5 and 9 (Naxos 8.572167) in Fanfare 33:4, and liked the disc very much. (Ronald E. Grames, in the same issue, liked it too, and he gave a glowing review to Petrenko’s Shostakovich 11th in 33:2, selecting it for his Want List.)

My eager anticipation was not disappointed. There have been many fine recordings of this symphony (Previn for EMI, Mravinsky, and Haitink, to name three) and Petrenko does not quite become a clear leader of the pack with this release. He’s definitely running with the top dogs, however, and the excellent (sometimes wall-shaking) engineering and the reasonable Naxos list price also are in his favor.

Petrenko does not deviate from conventional wisdom about how this work should go. What makes his reading distinctive, then, is the care with which he brings out the music’s details, without getting in the way of the symphony’s forward momentum.

One thing I wondered, after hearing Petrenko’s reading of the third movement (several times), was whether Shostakovich was familiar with Bruckner’s Ninth. There seem to be parallels between this movement and the second movement of Bruckner’s symphony. One might make that argument about Shostakovich’s second movement as well, as it suggests the trio from that same movement by Bruckner. One of the aforementioned details that I particularly appreciated comes at the end of the trio section in the third movement. Petrenko makes the descent of the accompanying brass line unnervingly clear; it is like sliding into a pit of quicklime. Another moment that works particularly well comes at the very end of the symphony, where Petrenko conveys the sensation of emotional exhaustion commingled with the breathlessness of hope. Some victory, this, coming after the posturing of the movement’s earlier sections. (The violin solo, following the movement’s climax, also is played with great sensitivity and character—by the orchestra’s concertmaster, I assume.)

One last section worth mentioning comes in the first movement. Through the latter portion of the movement, Petrenko fires up a particularly mechanistic and inhumane war machine, cementing it heartlessly at 15:35. In the buildup to this climax, Petrenko demonstrates his control over terraced dynamics and emotional pacing—both so crucial in much of Shostakovich’s music.

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, which plays stunningly here, is fortunate to have Petrenko as its principal conductor (at least until 2012!) and we are fortunate to have Naxos standing by with microphones at the ready. Named “Young Artist of the Year” by Gramophone in 2007, Petrenko is a conductor who should remain in the international forefront for the next several decades. My fingers are crossed!



Hi-Fi News & Record Review, October 2010

ALBUM CHOICE

This surpasses previous RLPO instalments in the Naxos series…Petrenko obviously has the skill of gearing a complete performance to a climactic point.



© Gerald Fenech
Music & Vision, September 2010

‘…very much on the ball…’

After having been closely acquainted with recent Shostakovich cycles on MDG and Arts, this new CD from the impeccable RLPO stable featuring the up and coming Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko was meat and drink to my ears.

The Eighth Symphony is a bit of an enigma in that it is supposed to celebrate the end of the war but in its way, it has a tongue-in-cheek attitude about it which is also rather tragic. This was well caught by such eminent conductors as Mravinsky and Kondrashin, who were among the most loyal exponents of the work.

I greatly enjoyed the transition from the Adagio to the Allegro in the First Movement which is by far the most substantial in the entire work. Petrenko handles this quite superbly and the energy of the latter part of the movement is also quite orgiastic.

The two middle movements are also lithe and at the same time savage in their intensity, undoubtedly Shostakovich’s testament to the many millions who lost their life in the war. Petrenko is again very much on the ball here with the RLPO strings particularly effective.

Finally we have the Largo-Allegretto which concludes in a void of nothingness—extremely effective in its sense of hopelessness. Naxos provides the usual sumptuous notes and the recording is top drawer quality. Those who choose this Shostakovich cycle will certainly not be disappointed.



Robert Cummings
Classical Net, September 2010

This is a solid, ultimately compelling Shostakovich 8th...Petrenko presents a ponderous first movement (Adagio – Allegro non troppo), taking a few minutes before developing the necessary intensity and darkness to bring off the music properly. The first Scherzo (Allegretto) is quite spirited and brilliantly played, as is the following, more warlike one (Allegro non troppo). But here the climax lacks a little punch, owing to somewhat reticent timpani. The ensuing passacaglia (Largo) is brooding and dark, quite convincing and well played. The finale (Allegretto) is appropriately ghostly and menacing. All in all then, this is a well-conceived and well-executed rendition of this great Shostakovich symphony.

The Naxos sound reproduction is excellent and the notes, by Richard Whitehouse, very informative. This issue is part of a complete cycle of Shostakovich symphonies by Petrenko, Nos. 5 & 9, and 11 having already been released. In general Petrenko has received positive reviews in this heavily traversed repertory, and this very fine effort of the 8th will undoubtedly draw accolades. Recommended.




James Manishen
Winnipeg Free Press, August 2010

The latest installment in Petrenko’s Shostakovich symphony cycle maintains the high standard set in his previous Naxos releases of Symphonies 11, 5 and 9. Again, the Liverpool players’ style and polish compare most favorably with the best orchestras that have recorded this challenging music.

The Eighth dates from 1943 and is not only among Shostakovich’s darkest works but his deepest but is a masterly essay of structure and technique where one feels the terror of the times on many levels. The finale culminates in a kind of peace that bears out what Shostakovich wrote on completion: “everything that is dark and gloomy will rot away, and the beautiful shall triumph.”

Petrenko’s splendidly recorded account...is an excellent reading overall and at budget price warrants a strong recommendation.



David Fanning
Gramophone, August 2010

There are the makings of a great interpretation here, and at bargain price the disc is clearly recommendable…excellently recorded.



Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, July 2010

I first heard Shostakovich’s 8th Symphony when Arvid Jansons (Mariss’s father) conducted it with the Hallé in Bradford’s St George’s Hall in about 1967. I well remember being bowled over by the sheer size and huge emotional impact of the work. Over the years I’ve heard many performances, both live and in recordings, and my admiration for, and fascination with, the work has only deepened. I have always had a high regard for the Kondrashin and Mravinsky recordings, for they, more than any other, seemed to penetrate to the heart of this very troubled music.

A couple of years ago I had the real pleasure to welcome Petrenko and the RLPO’s performance of the 11th Symphony (Naxos 8.572082) which had a real sweep and verve. Petrenko displayed a superb grasp of the architecture of the music—essential in these huge Symphonies—and brought about one of the best recorded performances of this work. The same is true here.

The long first movement starts with a trenchant attack from cellos and basses, full of anticipation and it’s followed by the most exciting pianissimo! The gradual build-up to the climactic central section—where Shostakovich literally brutalises his music—is as ferocious and vicious as you could want. The final moment of stress—where Shostakovich quotes, for the first time, the Manfred theme (from Tchaikovsky’s work) is quite shattering. Then it all falls away to a very quiet, and most eloquently played, cor anglais lament. This sudden change is very well handled for it is so cruel in its abruptness. After this, but never allowing the tension to drop, the music slowly makes its way to its disturbed ending. The nasty little scherzo which follows is given here in a performance as bland and straightforward as possible, making the perversity of the music all the more prickly. It’s very discomfiting.

The last three movements play without a break and make an imposing edifice. The third movement moto perpetuo is bleak and unforgiving, with unnerving punctuations from high screaming woodwinds. A brief military tattoo cuts across the scene, but it seems like so much hot air, it has no authority, and then we’re back to the endless racing. Again Petrenko builds a gigantic climax, with timpani and drums blasting away as Tchaikovsky’s theme blazes forth in anger; this is quite hair-raising. The ensuing passacaglia is peaceful, if desolate, with beautiful sustained playing from the orchestra. The finale starts in the most bucolic way, with a solo bassoon singing the praises of a simple life and all is sweetness and light. But this is Shostakovich’s great War Symphony so you know that things will take a turn for the worse and sure enough tensions mount and there’s a fierce battle, but I don’t feel the same tension and forward momentum Petrenko displayed in earlier movements when in this situation; the final playing of the Tchaikovsky theme is magnificent but the build-up is too light. However, the quiet coda is excellent, unnerving and disturbing, neither Shostakovich nor Petrenko are going to allow this to be an easy ride into peace.

Apart from this small complaint this is a marvellous performance. Petrenko distances himself, slightly, from the music, and shows us the progress of the music without imposing any personal ideas on it. But this is not an impersonal account, it is a very fine reading and I suspect that, at times, Petrenko had in mind the subsequent political changes which happened in Russian politics after the end of the war, and this has coloured his interpretation. For instance, the trumpet tattoo in the scherzo seems more a snubbing of militarism and blind faith than anything militaristic.

The recording is excellent, full-bodied, and has a very wide dynamic range, the pianissimos being so very, spectacularly, quiet that the climaxes, when they come, are overwhelming. This is a real success.




John Quinn
MusicWeb International, July 2010

…the Eighth is a masterpiece rivalled in emotional depth only by the great Tenth…Petrenko’s reading was set down under studio conditions…it’s a pretty intense experience, but it has the extra degree of polish that can be obtained in a studio. It also benefits from infinitely superior sound…the RLPO strings are by no means put in the shade. After the initial rhetorical motto on cellos and basses the violins achieve a breathtaking ppp and the strings sustain the bleak opening pages, lasting four minutes or so, with excellent control. This whole movement contains lengthy sections that are very sparsely scored and the concentration with which Petrenko and his players sustain these passages is superb. The colossal climaxes stand like forbidding peaks in this long expanse of often-glacial music and the principal one (16:23–17:16) is overwhelming in its power. Immediately afterwards, the extended, bleak cor anglais solo is hauntingly eloquent, like a lament in a nuclear winter

In an essay on this symphony, Michael Steinberg quotes the judgement of Serge Koussevitzky that this first movement “by the power of its human emotion, surpasses everything else created in our time.” That’s, presumably, a verdict delivered soon after the work’s first performances and it’s a view which Koussevitzky might have modified with the passage of time but I know what he meant. It’s a shattering creation and I found Petrenko’s reading of it to be gripping from first note to last. He controls the pacing of the music and its long lines expertly and it seems to me that he comprehends and is able to convey the sheer span of the movement. Indeed, though nothing is rushed he actually makes the music seem to last for a shorter period of time than the twenty-five minutes for which it plays.

After such an experience I’d actually recommend the use of the “pause” button, for though Naxos provide a decent interval between the first and second movements one really needs a bit of a breather to gather ones thoughts. The second movement is a grotesque, dissonant and often strident piece. I’m not quite sure I agree with the label “bluff though sardonic” that’s applied to it by Richard Whitehouse in his excellent booklet note. It seems to me that this is a spiky movement that’s sometimes deliberately nasty in tone—am I fanciful in imagining a parody of and protest against a goose-stepping militarism? I admired the precision of the playing of the RLPO in this movement and the piquant woodwind playing in the somewhat quieter, less brazen middle section is very good.

The last three movements play continuously. III is a relentless, menacing, motoric affair…this is no scherzo but “a savage relentless machine”. There is sardonic, wry humour in the post-horn galop-style trio, in which the RLPO’s trumpeter distinguishes himself, but when that’s passed the machine returns, even more brutal in tone than before. It won’t be denied until the music achieves its visceral climax. Petrenko handles this movement extremely well.

If anything he’s finer still in the desolate passacaglia that follows. The soft playing of his string section is outstanding and later in the movement there are notable contributions from solo horn, piccolo, flutes and clarinet. Only a few years later Ralph Vaughan Williams was to write music that is not dissimilar in scope and ambience in the finale of his Sixth Symphony. On the evidence of this Shostakovich recording that’s a work that I’d very much like to hear Petrenko essay before too long. As was the case in the first movement, the musical and emotional control exhibited by both conductor and players is admirable.

The finale is a movement that leaves me unsure. I don’t find it easy to grasp where Shostakovich is going emotionally. The surface relaxation from minor key desolation to the relative warmth of a major key might suggest that optimism has finally asserted itself. But I’m not so sure. There seem to be troubled undercurrents at several times and how does one reconcile a more hopeful mood with the arrival at another of those implacably terrifying climaxes? (8:12–9:30) Yet immediately that towering climax has spent itself the bass clarinet sets off with what one can only call a sinuous yet quiet dance, in which a solo violin soon joins. What is one to make of it all? And then the last three or four minutes bring some semblance of peace, albeit a somewhat ambiguous, unsure peace. I very much doubt this was the sort of equivocal conclusion that the Soviet musical apparatchicks wanted or expected to hear from the Soviet Union’s leading symphonist during the Great Patriotic War and so the symphony was misunderstood in the years immediately after its première just as was the Ninth.

My first encounter with Vasily Petrenko’s Shostakovich cycle has proved to be a rewarding experience. It seems to me that he really has the measure of this epic work and he’s conveyed his vision to the orchestra who reward him with consistently top quality playing. The recorded sound is very good, as is the documentation, including an evocative photograph on the booklet cover, showing the composer at work on this very symphony in 1943.

This powerful, stirring performance would be a leading library contender at full price. At the Naxos price its claims on collectors’ attentions are even greater. I eagerly await further instalments in this cycle, especially the Fourth and Tenth symphonies.



Richard Lawrence
Classic FM, July 2010

Indeed, all the solo playing is distinguished…A fine performance.



David Nice
BBC Music Magazine, July 2010

This is a model of clarity, then, and yet another Petrenko performance to join the greats.




David Hurwitz
ClassicsToday.com, June 2010

This may not be the most harrowing version of the Eighth, but of its type it’s unquestionably a great performance. Often this symphony consists of hair-raising climaxes interspersed between acres of nothingness. Not here. This symphony also is one of Shostakovich’s most formally masterly and imaginative, and this performance reminds us in the most compelling way. Petrenko’s flowing tempos in the first movement and passacaglia keep the music moving, not lurching, forward at all times. The 25 minutes of the first movement seem to pass by in half that time. Its opening threnody in particular has even more expressive power than usual for being phrased in long melodic arcs that never turn static.

After an aptly gawky scherzo, the toccata is as brilliant and menacing as any (with a dashingly militant central section), but it’s the finale that really sets the seal on this performance. The Eighth always is a tough piece to project convincingly, but Petrenko is at his absolute best here, pacing the music perfectly and timing the climax in such a way that (for once) it doesn’t sound like a less impressive recapitulation of the first movement—and this isn’t because its previous occurrence is underplayed in any way. Excellent playing from all departments of the orchestra plus vividly natural engineering complete what is easily the best installment of this ongoing cycle to date.



David Denton
David's Review Corner, May 2010

Vasily Petrenko’s on-going cycle of the complete Shostakovich symphonies has all of the ingredients to shape the most interesting recordings in modern digital sound. The Eighth, dating from 1943, was the most coruscating of the composer’s war-time compositions, at times acerbic, at others doom laden, and in the final movement we arrive at a mixture of desolation accompanied by peace. ‘Life is beautiful. Everything that is dark and gloomy will rot away, and the beautiful shall triumph,’ the composer wrote, though for much of this score it is darkness that triumphs. For many years it almost belonged to the Leningrad Philharmonic and their conductor, Yevgeny Mravinsky, to whom the work was dedicated. Listening again to one of their many recordings you are struck by the many purple patches in the score, the woodwind screaming and the percussion helping to create the most awesome climatic moments. With Petrenko I am now remembering his performance as a whole. His Liverpool orchestra may not pack the punch of Leningrad, or for that matter a number of the other orchestras who have recorded the work, but they can respond with that vibrancy that brings the whole score—not just a few spectacular passages—to life. They play the second and third movements as quickly as anyone, indeed the whole performance is among the most speedy on disc. The many solos are excellent, the bassoon unsurpassed, and the open sound of the trumpets just as thrilling as the brazen Leningrad players. Intonation is immaculate in all departments, Petrenko pointing to much inner detail helped by the outstanding sound quality. Then we come to those chilling moments when the work simply evaporates, and Petrenko will leave you so totally disturbed as to the future of humanity. A remarkable achievement.






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