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SHOSTAKOVICH, D.: Symphonies, Vol. 4 - Symphony No. 10 (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Petrenko)


Naxos 8.572461

   Enjoy the Music, May 2013
   Chicago Tribune, December 2011
   Allmusic.com, November 2011
   Fanfare, November 2011
   Gramophone, October 2011
   Audiophilia, August 2011
   Otago Daily Times, May 2011
   Fanfare, May 2011
   The New Zealand Herald, April 2011
   The Classical Review, January 2011
   The Boston Globe, January 2011
   Gramophone, January 2011
   Classical Net, January 2011
   Classic FM, January 2011
   MusicWeb International, December 2010
   MusicWeb International, December 2010
   BBC Music Magazine, December 2010
   ClassicsToday.com, November 2010
   Examiner.com, November 2010
   My Classical Notes, November 2010
   MusicWeb International, November 2010
   David's Review Corner, November 2010

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Max Westler
Enjoy the Music, May 2013

When (in 2008) the British musical press first touted the accomplishments of Vasily Petrenko, the young Russian conductor who had just been appointed music director of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, I was deeply suspicious. And when he was scheduled to perform the Shostakovitch Symphony No. 10 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as a guest, I decided to see for myself.

Petrenko certainly had the skills. Young though he may be, he conducted with confidence and a sense of authority. His gestures were balletic, but also communicative. He knew exactly what he wanted, and he knew how to ask for it. But more important, he involved the orchestra at the deepest emotional level. The entire program he conducted that day was impressively done…but the Shostakovitch was a special wonder: the performance took wing with the first notes, and the intensity never flagged. You didn’t have to be a musicologist to know you were hearing a great performance.

Petrenko’s interpretation fused…conflicting and contradictory forces into a dramatically convincing and cohesive whole that was both detailed and expressive. It was as compelling (and harrowing) as any Shostakovitch 10th I’d ever heard, and I left Orchestra Hall determined to purchase his recording (and also wondering if it could possibly be as remarkable as the performance I’d just experienced). It was indeed…they [Royal Liverpool] play with remarkable concentration and intensity, and a tonal richness that certainly had me believing I was listening to a major ensemble. The solos were especially and uniformly impressive, soulful for the more lyric episodes, fierce and biting in the more dramatic ones. And if, to all this, you add the best orchestral sound I’ve ever heard on a Naxos disc (luminous at the top, all warmth on the bottom), it’s small wonder it won that prestigious Gramophone award. The fact that my three favorite recordings of this symphony (Berglund, Mravinsky, and Mitropolous) are currently out of print makes this performance essential listening. © 2013 Enjoy the Music Read complete review



John von Rhein
Chicago Tribune, December 2011

What many consider the Soviet master’s greatest symphony gets its finest digital-era recording to date under the young Russian maestro, whose Shostakovich symphony cycle gets better with each new release. © 2011 Chicago Tribune



Blair Sanderson
Allmusic.com, November 2011

Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra put tremendous emotional power and physical energy into this 2009 performance, and even though purists might prefer a full-blooded Russian ensemble playing this work, the musicians give it a passionate and insightful rendition. The reproduction is sharply focused and the orchestra is quite clear, whether in soft passages or in the most shattering climaxes.




Arthur Lintgen
Fanfare, November 2011

Vasily Petrenko’s Shostakovich symphony cycle is fast becoming something special. This 10th Symphony is not quite as formidable as his Eighth (interpretively or sonically), but it is certainly one of the best. No one rivals Petrenko’s intensity in the second movement, and the critically important pounding timpani at the end are more clearly articulated than on any other recording.




Gramophone, October 2011

“Petrenko’s Shostakovich cycle goes from strength to strength,” noted David Fanning. His account of the Tenth Symphony was nothing other than “profound and passionate”. Petrenko’s ability to negotiate the physical demands of the Tenth, as well as his instinct for pacing, left DJF little choice but to declare that “if there has been a finer account of the Tenth in recent years, I confess I must have missed it”.



Anthony Kershaw
Audiophilia, August 2011

The phrasing in this 10th is exquisite, the ensemble is very fine, and the musicality heartbreaking. The crazy Scherzo demonstrating equally crazy string section ensemble, woodwind solos galore that ache in intensity while played with grace and flawless intonation, and not forgetting the very powerful brass and percussion.

…this brilliant reading of the 20th Century’s greatest symphony gets an equally amazing recording. Messrs. Walton and Rowlands capture the ‘Phil’ acoustics beautifully. The recording is tight as a drum—more controlled than strictured. It lets the listener hear the solos in a beautiful space and allows all the musicians to display the complete control that Petrenko elicits from his wonderful orchestra.



Geoff Adams
Otago Daily Times, May 2011

Vasily Perenko’s reputation as a conductor soars higher as the RLPO tackles the most popular of Shostakovich’s symphonies and triumphs again.

This is a terrific performance, further confirming that this Naxos complete set of Shostakovich symphonies so far is very special in terms of interpretation, virtuoso playing and clarity of recording.

It is a monumental work with extended first movement (23 minutes) followed by the brief, explosive and brutal scherzo and then two further long movements.

This outstanding music may be a portrait commentary on Stalin’s iron fists, but it also contains the intriguing element of the Elmira motif, a musical code to the name of a young woman pianist to whom he was attracted.

Highlight: exultant ending to finale.



Raymond Tuttle
Fanfare, May 2011

Vasily Petrenko’s Shostakovich cycle, which already has addressed the Eighth (Naxos 8.572392), the 11th (Naxos 8.572082), and the Fifth and Ninth (Naxos 8.572167) symphonies, now progresses to the 10th. There’s little controversy over this being one of Shostakovich’s strongest symphonies. In fact, Petrenko has recorded the best works so far, and it will be interesting to hear what he does when he tackles the symphonies that require more indulgence, such as the Second, the Third, and the 12th.

The strength of Petrenko’s Shostakovich has lain not in revealing previously unknown vistas but in presenting conventional interpretations with polish and commitment that are nevertheless not just “business as usual.” That describes the present release as well. No one familiar with this symphony, or with the earlier releases in this series, will be surprised by anything Petrenko does—with a few very minor exceptions. (For example, take the accelerando at the climax of the third movement, and the violent pizzicato at 2:28 in the last movement.) While tempos in all four movements (the timings are 22:48, 4:09, 12:15, and 12:59, respectively) tend toward briskness, they are not really unusual. Nothing here makes the listener stop short and say, “Well, I never thought of that before.” If hearing this CD is a gripping experience, it is because Shostakovich made the music contained therein that way, and because Petrenko is content to bring the score to fruition.

I’m certainly not saying that a very personal Shostakovich 10th is a bad thing. Herbert von Karajan, who was not at all associated with Shostakovich’s work, recorded this symphony twice for DG. His recordings are as much about himself as they are about the composer, yet they work, simply because he seems to have responded to this score in such a deep way. Yevgeny Mravinsky’s various readings have an authenticity and a tension that put them in a class of their own. Still, if you are looking for a more objective Shostakovich 10th in very fine sound, Petrenko is just as satisfying (in his own way) as Karajan and Mravinsky.

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic has less tonal plushness than Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic, and somewhat less character than both that orchestra and Mravinsky’s Leningrad Philharmonic. On the other hand, Petrenko’s orchestra is not lacking personality. When required, the playing has an appropriate vulnerability, and the fury of the second movement, while disciplined, is pushed to its limits by the musicians. Solo winds in the third movement (in particular) take on a human quality. No one need be concerned that the playing on this CD is generic or underpowered.

The aforementioned conductors do special work in this symphony. Perhaps Petrenko’s efforts are less distinctive, but in no way do I ever feel that he has shortchanged this work, and in the context of his growing Shostakovich cycle, this new release can be recommended without reservation.




William Dart
The New Zealand Herald, April 2011

Vasily Petrenko’s cycle of Shostakovich Symphonies with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra continues thrillingly on Naxos.

The Tenth, a cry of freedom after years of Stalinist oppression, is the fourth in the series and totally absorbing.

Petrenko and his fine players know just how to sustain tension over the symphony’s mighty first movement, in preparation for a terrifying sprint across the minefield of the second.

The shifting moods of the third movement, its many colours realised vividly through the superb acoustics of the northern city’s Philharmonic Hall, are followed by a Finale with an Allegro that proves to be a veritable cloudburst of wit and brilliance.



John von Rhein
The Classical Review, January 2011

Several months ago here I welcomed enthusiastically a gripping, high-voltage account of Shostakovich’s Symphony No.8 from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and its chief conductor, Vasily Petrenko, that lent further distinction to Naxos’ ongoing Shostakovich symphony cycle with that orchestra and conductor.

For their fourth entry in the series, the Russian maestro and his Liverpudlians turn to the Tenth Symphony, a masterpiece many commentators hold to be the greatest of the 15 (no arguments from me, although I find Nos.4 and 8 very nearly as inspired). Once again they have produced a winner to take its place alongside the very finest recordings that have appeared since Yevgeny Mravinsky premiered the symphony in Leningrad a few months after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953.

Once again, Petrenko gives the symphony a sweeping impetus and dramatic intensity that respect the composer’s metronome marks but are not subservient to them; indeed, his astute pacing brings him rather close to the score’s estimated duration of “approximately 50 minutes” (Petrenko comes in at 52’11”). Always his judging of tempo relationships is shrewd, a notable case in point being the third movement (Allegretto) where he finesses Shostakovich’s crescendo and diminuendi so deftly that the horn call emerges like a vision of hope, as it should.

Petrenko has the measure of the first movement’s narrative arch, its brooding intensity writ large in the orchestra’s deep, dark sonorities, and well captured by Naxos’ clear, forwardly balanced soundstage. Seldom has any conductor since the classic old Dimitri Mitropoulos/New York Philharmonic recording (no longer available but worth searching for) better caught the unremitting fury of the second movement (Allegro), which Shostakovich reportedly said was a portrait of Stalin.

As for the finale (Andante-Allegro), I like the emotional ambivalence Petrenko searches out in the climactic pages following the return of the composer’s ‘DSCH’ monogram. Here, as before, his grip is at one with the music’s essence. Petrenko and his fine orchestra clearly are on a Shostakovich roll, and I can’t wait to hear what they do with some of the less-familiar symphonies.



Harlow Robinson
The Boston Globe, January 2011

When young Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko made his BSO debut in October 2009, the critics swooned over his Shostakovich 10th Symphony. The Globe called it a “performance that was both beautifully laid out and viscerally thrilling.” Here, Petrenko leads his home orchestra in a muscular, focused reading of this same work, Shostakovich’s first post-Stalin symphony (completed in 1953), and among his most autobiographical creations.

One of the most formidable challenges the epic 10th poses to a conductor is pacing: The first movement alone runs nearly 23 minutes. Slow tempi and a religious lyricism prevail, with little of the composer’s trademark biting sarcasm. Despite the large orchestral forces, many sections are scored for chamber ensemble. The emotional tension needs to be sustained throughout or the piece can easily fall into disconnected episodes.

Petrenko more than rises to the occasion, and demonstrates why he is a local hero in Liverpool for energizing the venerable RLPO. From the opening bars, he draws intense, accurate, and expressive playing from his musicians. The woodwind sound is especially distinctive. Unlike some interpreters, he resists the temptation to drag slow tempi, and keeps things moving along. He provides the drama without veering into the maudlin. At the end of the third and fourth movements, Shostakovich’s proud musical signature D-S-C-H (D, E-flat, C, B) bursts forth with just the right combination of tragedy and triumph: “Take that, Stalin, I’m still here!”




David Fanning
Gramophone, January 2011

There’s been no finer account in recent years

Petrenko’s Shostakovich cycle goes from strength to strength, and hardly any of the reservations I voiced over his Eight apply to this profound and passionate account of No 10.

This is a symphony that places a high premium on a conductor’s ability to shape long lines with subtle inflections of tempo and structural accent, especially in the epic first movement’s journey from mystery to tragic climax and back. In this respect Petrenko lives up to—I venture to say, even surpasses—the greatest of his compatriots, joining the earlier Karajan account as the most satisfying I could name. Only the very slight jolt in dynamic level on the way down from the passionate central phase (at 15’08”) fractionally disappoints.

The denunciatory Scherzo is as hefty and as furious as any, or would be if only the trumpets rang out more fiercely at the high-point (from 3’45”). I don’t know whether to lay the blame at the door of players, conductor or engineers, but this apparent misplaced reticence is the same weakness I felt in Petrenko’s Eight, so I hope it can be overcome in future issues.

At any rate it is not long before the third movement casts its spell, with the perfect watchful tentativeness at the opening and some inspired pointing of colour and accent in the first statement of the “DSCH” theme. Here and in the finale Petrenko’s instinct for pacing enables the power of Shostakovich’s symphonic design to register to maximum effect. If there has been a finer account of the Tenth in recent years, I confess I must have missed it; and I would be surprised. With the possible exception of the brass balance, noted above, the Naxos recording is clear and full-bodied.



Robert Cummings
Classical Net, January 2011

This ongoing Shostakovich symphony cycle has now reached volume 4 with this issue of the 1953 Tenth. I reviewed the Eighth a few months back and found it a compelling reading on most counts. I missed the first two issues in the series, which contained #11 (vol. 1) and Nos. 5 & 9 (vol. 2). This Tenth is superb, the finest I have ever encountered in a field that includes recordings by Haitink, Andrew Davis, Berglund, Ormandy, Karajan, Rahbari, Barshai, Ladislav Slovak and probably several others that don’t come to mind. Petrenko’s second movement brims with hell bent drive, spewing acid and turmoil everywhere, imparting a sense of reckless abandon—and in a performance of such precision and spirit! The orchestra plays with bite and staccato, with breathless energy and crushing power for most of this four-minute panel. This movement is alleged to be a portrait of the then-recently deceased Stalin: but for all its anger and nastiness, it contains too much biting wit and clever scoring to be a musical incarnation of that boorish, murderous bastard.

The third movement is also brilliantly scored and here Petrenko invests the music with a sense of mystery in those central sections where stasis threatens to set in. The finale, too, comes across well: in the first half, which often sounds tedious and overlong, Petrenko imparts an enigmatic mood as the music struggles toward some kind of release, toward freedom? When the main theme arrives, all is joy and triumph, and if anything in this symphony is about Stalin, it’s that here in the finale everyone is happy that he is dead. I remember reading of Stalin’s death in the papers in 1953: little did I know then as a kid what kind of person had just left the world. This symphony might have been the kind Stalin wanted from Shostakovich at the end of World War II when Shostakovich disappointed him with his (deliberately) modest Ninth Symphony.

I skipped the first movement in my comments above, not because Petrenko’s interpretation of it is uninspired, but because it is a bit less distinctive from others. His brisk tempos are a plus in this movement, a movement so many conductors drag in their quest to plumb for hidden treasures. The Royal Liverpool players turn in fine work here, too, and overall this opening panel is as well conceived and executed as I’ve encountered, not least because of all the rich detail that emerges throughout. That said, the other movements strike me as head-and-shoulders above all other comers. In any event, this is quite simply the finest Shostakovich Tenth you’re likely to encounter for some time. Excellent sound, too. Highest recommendations!



Richard Lawrence
Classic FM, January 2011

The Music Shostakovich was in bad odour with the Soviet authorities after the Second World War, as he had been in the 1930s, for writing ‘personal’ rather than ‘official’ music. The Tenth Symphony didn’t appear until after the death of Stalin in 1953: just as well, as some have seen the vicious second movement as a portrait of the dictator.

The Performance Vasily Petrenko shapes the long first movement—nearly 23 minutes—very well, paying close attention to phrasing and emphases: just listen to the low clarinets at 10’11” as an example of his attention to detail. The orchestra plays for all its worth at the climaxes, but the veiled opening on the strings lacks mystery. The ‘Stalin’ Allegro is as brutal as you will find anywhere, and there’s plenty of excitement and wit in the Finale. In the third movement, built round a musical representation of Shostakovich’s name, Petrenko unaccountably speeds up at around 7;52”.

The Verdict This performance will not disappoint, though not everyone will like the in your face recording quality.

Want More? Go back in time and check out Petrenko and the RLPO in an excellent performance of Shostakovich’s Eight Symphony (Naxos 8.572392).



Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, December 2010

There’s a growing belief that this is Shostakovich’s greatest symphony and I’m strongly inclined to agree, especially after hearing this new performance: it presses all the right buttons, in both the powerful and the more thoughtful passages, and the recording, though offered in mp3 only, is first-rate.

Petrenko’s Shostakovich cycle is gradually but definitively replacing some rather unsatisfactory older versions on Naxos.




Brian Reinhart
MusicWeb International, December 2010

Just released, and an instant classic. The deep, rich, vibrant, clear sound quality is enough to make this reading a must-have, but Vasily Petrenko’s ingenious direction and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s world-class playing forced me to make this Tenth a last-second addition to my Recordings of the Year. Listen for special moments like the swooping violin portamenti at 00:26 in the scherzo, the spunkily klezmer-influenced clarinet solo at the start of the allegretto, or Petrenko’s superb balancing of orchestral sections in the last four bars. Perfect!




David Nice
BBC Music Magazine, December 2010

The whirlwind scherzo is hair-raising. But it’s in Petrenko’s Finale that all lines meet: the arching, painful lyricism of the first movement crystallised in the opening oboe solo, the perky Allegro light and airy at first to point up its contrast to the second movement, which duly breaks in as storm clouds gather. The ending is genuinely exultant. Recorded sound is brilliant.




David Hurwitz
ClassicsToday.com, November 2010

This performance goes right to the top. Not since the amazing mono Ancerl recording has there been a version of this work of such intensity, such expressive urgency, and (yes, believe it or not) such incredible orchestral playing. It’s impossible to praise the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic enough: they put their London colleagues to shame. The cellos and basses have a dark, tactile presence in pianissimo not heard since the old Kondrashin Melodiya recording. The horns play the daylights out of their solos in the first and third movements, while Petrenko has the violins sustaining, articulating, and phrasing the climax of the first movement with a passion and grit that’s beyond praise.

Indeed, as an essay in Shostakovich conducting alone this performance deserves an honored place in every collection. Petrenko has the players digging into the second movement with unbridled ferocity at an ideally swift tempo. He ferrets out every subtle detail of scoring in the crepuscular Allegretto while never permitting the music to drag. His finale has just the right manic high spirits, and he clarifies the DSCH motive in the timpani at the end better than anyone else ever has. It’s all captured in gloriously vivid, present sonics by the Naxos engineers. Thrilling, perfect, essential—a magnificent achievement and hands down the modern reference recording.



Stephen Smoliar
Examiner.com, November 2010

The fourth volume in Vasily Petrenko’s project to conduct the complete symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra has now been released by Naxos. This is a performance of the composer’s Opus 93, his tenth symphony in E minor. In the accompanying booklet Richard Whitehouse considers the question of whether the complete collection of fifteen symphonies constitutes as “cycle,” comparing them with the symphonic canons of Ludwig van Beethoven and Gustav Mahler. This is likely to be a contentious issue (just as it would be where Beethoven and Mahler are concerned). However, for purposes of reference, it is useful to consider Whitehouse’s perspective:

Of the symphonies, the First is a graduation work that accorded the teenage composer international prominence. The Second and Third represent a reckless accommodation between modernist means and revolutionary ends, while the Fourth stakes out the boundary between the individual and society that was to remain a focal-point. The Fifth clarifies that boundary by paradoxically making it more equivocal, which process the Sixth continues by subverting the relationship still further. The Seventh is a reaction to civil conflict and social collapse that finds its equivalent in the Eighth, which in turn finds its opposite in the Ninth. The Tenth marks the genre’s culmination as the outlet for an abstract programme. The Eleventh opens a period where Russian concerns were foremost, its historical acuity diluted by the seeming impersonality of the Twelfth, then intensified by the explicitness of the Thirteenth. The Fourteenth stands outside the genre as regards form but not content, while the Fifteenth marks a belated re-engagement with abstract symphonism such as might or might not have been continued.

Personally, I think it is very risky to interpret a set of works in a common genre in terms of the “longue durée” of the composer’s life span. On the other hand in the context of the impact of Soviet authority on Shostakovich’s life, I have previously suggested that his music may be his only accurate autobiographical record, even if that record was heavily encoded.

Such argument may be academic, however, since Petrenko has apparently decided to eschew chronological order in his traversal of these fifteen symphonies. Thus, rather than addressing Whitehouse’s contextual framework, we might begin by “reviewing the bidding” of the first three CDs in this Naxos project:

  1. The first consisted of Opus 103, the eleventh symphony in G minor, given the programmatic title “The Year 1905.” This was originally intended to mark the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1905 (the failed first attempt). The composition is a fascinating attempt to synthetize program music within the framework of symphonic form; and my review of this recording cited a print of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ten Days that Shook the World with a soundtrack based on excerpts from this symphony. Even without a cinematic supplement, the program is readily accessible, making the music an excellent selection for listeners just getting to know Shostakovich.
  2. The second recording coupled the Opus 47 fifth symphony in D minor with the Opus 70 ninth symphony in E-flat major. The fifth is probably the best known of the Shostakovich symphonies. It is likely that, once the project was launched with the “hook” of Opus 103, it made sense to satisfy popular demand for Opus 47 sooner rather than later. Opus 70 is not particularly compatible with Opus 47, but it fills out the duration of the CD nicely. Valery Gergiev chose the same pairing in his Shostakovich recording project with the Kirov Orchestra.
  3. The third recording consists entirely of the Opus 65 eighth symphony in C minor. This is probably the most harrowing of the fifteen symphonies (and is lasts over an hour). It was also the major offering in the program that Petrenko prepared for his first appearance as a guest conductor of the San Francisco Symphony. When I reviewed this CD, I recalled the pre-concert talk for this program, at which Scott Foglesong observed that one could not ask anyone to “enjoy” this music; so he concluded his talk by wishing “The Force be with you” to his audience.

There is evidence that Shostakovich may have conceived Opus 93 as early as 1946, not long after having completed Opus 70; and the pianist Tatyana Nikolayeva claims to have heard him play the first movement on piano in 1951. However, serious work on the symphony did not begin until June of 1953. Given Shostakovich’s agonizing relations with Soviet authority, it is worth recalling that Joseph Stalin died on March 5, 1953. The Soviet bureaucracy did not die with him; but there may be some degree to which this symphony was at least a tentative exercise in “freedom of expression.”
Nevertheless, Shostakovich probably knew better than to express anything about Stalin. So, if there are any “memorial” qualities in this music, they were more likely directed at Shostakovich’s “senior colleague,” who died on the same day as Stalin, that colleague being Sergei Prokofiev. Thus the wild scherzo of the second movement of Shostakovich’s symphony recalls some of the more stirring images of battle depicted by Eisenstein for which Prokofiev composed soundtrack music. Similarly, there is a waltz theme in the first movement that evokes Prokofiev’s skill in endowing this dance form with rich narrative qualities in both ballet and opera.

There is another possible connection, which may be too remote to be more than mere speculation but may still deserve passing consideration. This would involve Shostakovich’s awareness of the work of Benjamin Britten, with whom he developed a close friendship in the Sixties. There is one brief motif in the fourth (and final) movement of Opus 93 that bears at least a “family resemblance” to the “floating republic” motif in Britten’s Billy Budd opera. This connection may be overly remote but at least carries political implications that would have resonated with Soviet listeners.

Taken as a whole, the symphony is a rich journey through many of Shostakovich’s more familiar rhetorical strategies, which should make it quite accessible for those following Petrenko’s approach to ordering the symphonies. It will also present the first symphonic exposure to Shostakovich’s “initials motif,” D-S-C-H (D-E-flat-C-B), which appears in so many of his compositions in many genres. Petrenko’s reading of this symphony presents a clear understanding of its overall architecture, the interrelationships among its thematic materials, and the diversity of sonorities in its orchestration. All that is missing is the immediacy on an actual performance, leaving us to hope that Petrenko’s next visit to Davies Symphony Hall will be sooner rather than later!



Hank Zauderer
My Classical Notes, November 2010

The tenth symphony is one of Shostakovich’s finest works, and many great performances have found their way to the classical CD catalogs. It is a symphony composed in the immediate months following Stalin’s death in March 1953, and it occupies an important position in the total work output of the composer.

From the dark feelings of the extended opening movement, through the sound depiction of violence in the explosive Allegro, to the final movement’s dramatic climax, this is a work of strong musical contrasts. We hear dark rich tone in opening movement. The second is syncopated and rhythmic; the 3rd is somber again…and the 4th movement, Andante, opens dark again, against a soulful oboe…




John Quinn
MusicWeb International, November 2010

When I reviewed Vasily Petrenko’s excellent recording of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony a little while ago I concluded by saying that I looked forward, particularly, to hearing him in the Fourth and Tenth symphonies. Well, I’m sure it’s completely coincidental—these things are planned well in advance—but here’s the very next instalment of the cycle and I’m delighted to find that it consists of the Tenth Symphony.

Winston Churchill famously described Soviet Russia in 1939 as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. He could just as easily have been speaking of Dmitri Shostakovich, whose output often seems like a mass of ambiguities and seeming contradictions. What is one to make of his Tenth Symphony? If one goes along with Solomon Volkov’s controversial Testimony then it appears that Shostakovich intended the symphony to be a portrait of Stalin. In that context it may be highly significant that work on the symphony began a few weeks after the death of Stalin on 5 March 1953. Yet, as Richard Whitehouse reminds us in his very good booklet note, parts of what became the first movement existed as early as 1951 and the origins of the symphony may lie as far back as 1946/7. Of course, it’s possible that Stalin’s death released a creative urge in Shostakovich.

However, the Stalin portrait idea sits oddly with the discovery in the last few years that during the time of the composition of the work Shostakovich was emotionally attracted to a young pianist, Elmira Nazirova (b. 1928), who had been one of his composition pupils at Moscow Conservatoire. The composer was, of course, over twenty years older than Nazirova and, at the time, was still married to his first wife, who died in 1954. Famously, much of the thematic argument of the third movement of the symphony is around the four-note motif, D-S-C-H, representing the composer’s initial and the first three letters of his surname. Equally prominent in the movement is a five-note theme, first heard on the horn at 3:37 in this performance, that uses the notes E-A-E-D-A, which transliterate musically into Nazirova’s first name. If the third movement is indeed inspired by Shostakovich’s feelings for his erstwhile pupil where does that sit in a musical portrait of Stalin? Readers who wish to explore the Shostakovich-Nazirova relationship can find more information here.

The foregoing illustrates, I hope, how difficult it is to be sure what the Tenth symphony is “about”—it’s perfectly possible, for example, that the symphony was inspired, at different points, by Shostakovich’s reactions both to Stalin and Nazirova. And when the composer himself was asked if the symphony had a programme he responded in the negative and said, enigmatically, that people should “listen and guess for themselves”.

Whatever lies behind this symphony it is, in my opinion, not just a masterpiece but also one of the most important symphonic compositions of the twentieth century. Particularly imposing is the huge first movement, a composition of great emotional reach and profundity. Pacing is all-important here and it seems to me that Petrenko’s choice of speeds is pretty much spot-on. The opening paragraph contains music that’s marked by distant, brooding menace and by a sense of anticipation. Petrenko isn’t quite as spacious as Bernard Haitink in a very fine live reading with the London Philharmonic (LPO 0034), taken from a 1986 Promenade Concert in the Royal Albert Hall. However, there’s no lack of gravitas and suspense in Petrenko’s account and he manages the gradual acceleration in pulse over the succeeding pages, which produces to an increase in tension, very successfully. In passing it’s interesting to note that Karel Ancerl, in one of the very first recordings of the symphony (DG 463 666-2), dispatched this first movement in 20:48. His recording was made in 1956, when the work was pretty new and its performance tradition was still being established. As time has passed a consensus seems to have developed among conductors—beneficially, I think—that greater breadth is appropriate, so we find Petrenko taking 22:48 and Haitink 24:40, while Rudolf Barshai, in his much admired complete cycle, comes in between at 23:14.

As this great movement unfolds I was impressed by Petrenko’s grip on its architecture. Michael Steinberg has written of the “troubled, wandering music” at the beginning of the movement but, actually, that description could well fit many of its pages. Petrenko ensures that the wandering is purposeful and he seems to me to have an excellent sense of the structure of the movement. At all times the listener is led on with seeming inevitability. The movement requires complete commitment and, above all, concentration on the part of conductor and players if it’s to make its mark. Both qualities are in evidence here in a taut and disciplined reading. My only criticism is that when the grimly strident and implacable main climax is reached (12:51–14:00) I’d have liked just a little more breadth than Petrenko gives; but in the context of a reading that’s wholly convincing overall that’s a minor point.

The brief scherzo has been held by many observers to be a portrait of Stalin. Given the relentless brutality of the music that’s unsurprising and it may very well be true. This is iron fist music that Richard Whitehouse correctly describes as “among the most graphic musical evocations of violence.” Shostakovich said, in a talk to the Soviet Composers’ Union in 1954, that perhaps this movement was too short in relation to the other movements in the symphony. That may be the case but I’d suggest that if the movement were much longer neither the performers nor the audience would be able to cope with it.

Petrenko and his orchestra deliver a blistering account of this savage music—listen, for example, to the implacable menace of the lower brass between 2:25 and 2:44. Though the pace is frenetic Petrenko manages to get the right amount of weight into the music as well. In this he’s better than Haitink—though that LPO performance was recorded in the huge acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall, which may have dissipated some of the savagery. He’s infinitely better that Ancerl, whose reading whips by in a mere 3:51 (Petrenko takes 4:09) and sounds lightweight by comparison with either of these conductors or, indeed, beside Barshai, whose pacing and weight is similar to Petrenko’s though the new Naxos version benefits from much punchier recorded sound.

The third movement is, I think, highly enigmatic. The DSCH motif is well to the fore early on and I love Michael Steinberg’s thought that, with the second movement behind us, “The Stalin juggernaut is gone; it is the nervous Shostakovich himself who has made his apprehensive appearance.” It’s the introduction of the “Elmira” motif that starts to pose questions. Why, for example, is the first hearing of that motif followed immediately by a reminiscence of the “troubled, wandering music” that we first heard at the very outset of the first movement? And then, follow the dialogue, as it were, between the two motifs as the movement unfolds: what sort of relationship is the composer seeking to portray here—if, indeed, that’s what he’s doing? Petrenko leads a very fine—and extremely well played—account of this movement. The music is highly charged even when it is subdued in tone and this gifted young conductor maintains the tension very well indeed. From 8:28 onwards the build-up to the main climax has the requisite intensity as the pace accelerates. And then at the climax, when the DSCH motif tries to assert itself, is it defiance that we hear as the Elmira motif is hurled out ff by the horns? Truly, this is an enigmatic movement, but a very fine one, and these performers have the measure of it.

The finale opens in a mood of intense melancholy. Here there are distinguished contributions from the RLPO’s principal oboist and bassoonist. On the face of it, when the main allegro bursts forth (5:10) the music is extrovert, even high spirited. But, as so often with Shostakovich one just can’t be sure. In any event, it seems to me that joviality would be at odds with what has gone before, both in the introduction to the finale and, indeed, during the preceding three movements. One is reminded of the finale of the Fifth Symphony, which at a superficial level sounds like a victory, albeit one that has been hard won, but which, in reality, is probably anything but. Sure enough, at 7:24 wailing high woodwind figures begin to ratchet up the tension and the mood becomes increasingly fraught. From here on the material of the allegro is transformed into something darker until a huge climax on the DSCH motif is achieved. After that, some of the material from the movement’s introduction is revisited by the strings, although it now wears a rather more gentle countenance. Petrenko’s account of all this is compelling and his orchestra is with him every step of the way, delivering high-octane yet excellently disciplined playing. This thrusting, thoroughly committed traversal of the finale sets the seal on a very fine account of one of Shostakovich’s most searching symphonic creations.

Throughout this performance the RLPO offers very fine playing. They face stiff competition in the catalogue from many of the world’s leading orchestras but I don’t feel they need fear the comparisons. Their playing more than holds its own in this company. As for their conductor, this release serves to add further lustre to his reputation, especially in Russian repertoire. Once again Naxos have provided recorded sound that combines punch, presence and ambience. The excellence of the package is completed by Richard Whitehouse’s informed and informative notes.

This is shaping up to be a distinguished cycle of the Shostakovich symphonies. Those who have started to collect the series should not hesitate to invest in this latest release while newcomers, as they say, should start here. Further releases are awaited eagerly.



David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2010

Quite simply the most electrifying performance of the Tenth since the work’s first recording from Mravinsky and his Leningrad orchestra. Even those who offer a whirlwind scherzo do not retain Vasily Petrenko’s dramatic tension throughout the score, his unhurried and sombre opening movement carrying that feel of impending turmoil. If the composer intended an element of sorrow then it is not conveyed here. There is bleakness and moments of blazing anger, as if the composer were commenting on the Communist years, with a feel of resignation in the final coda. As Mravinsky worked with Shostakovich we can only assume the fast tempos through the remaining movements were exactly the composer’s intention, though with Petrenko you seem to be carried on an ocean wave crashing through everything in its path. You might want more subtle nuances in the scherzo, though you can never fault his attention to dynamics, the engineers providing climaxes to make speakers jump around. At such tempos even the Leningrad had to sacrifice some clarity of articulation. Petrenko does not relax tension in the third movement, and you can only admire the Liverpool for their transparency in pages of the finale that are black with notes, while the woodwind solos in more relaxed moments is of a quality equal to any on disc. The strings scream with passion as the go into their upper stratospheres, the brass and percussion jacking up the temperature to white heat. In the concert hall it would leave you feeling exhilarated ,and I commend it to you wholeheartedly. The sound quality is high impact and up-front to match the performance.






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