Completed in 1936 but withdrawn during rehearsal and not performed until 1961, the searing Fourth Symphony finds Shostakovich stretching his musical idiom to the limit in the search for a personal means of expression at a time of undoubted personal and professional crisis. The opening movement, a complex and unpredictable take on sonata form that teems with a dazzling profusion of varied motifs, is followed by a short, eerie central movement. The finale opens with a funeral march leading to a climax of seismic physical force that gives way to a bleak and harrowing minor key coda. The Symphony has since become one of the most highly regarded of the composer’s large-scale works.
Listen to the Podcast: Petrenko on Shostakovich 4th Symphony
Vasily Petrenko was appointed Principal Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in 2006 and in 2009 became Chief Conductor. He is also Chief Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Principal Guest Conductor of the Mikhailovsky Theatre of his native St Petersburg, and Principal Conductor of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.
Charismatic young conductor Vasily Petrenko launches his Shostakovich Symphonies series with the Eleventh, a highly charged depiction of the ‘Bloody Sunday’ massacre of over two hundred peaceful demonstrators by Czarist soldiers outside the Winter Palace in St Petersburg in 1905. Scored for a sizeable orchestra of triple woodwind, four horns, three each of trumpets and trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, celesta, harps and strings, the Symphony makes extensive use of revolutionary songs as thematic elements, as it progresses, without pause, from the glacial opening movement, Palace Square, to the terrifying massacre and its aftermath, The Ninth of January, the funereal third movement, Eternal Memory, and the final movement, The Tocsin, which culminates with cataclysmic bell strokes.
Following their electrifying account of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony (8.572082), Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra explore the profound ambivalences of the composer’s most performed symphony, the Fifth, written in 1937 at a time when he was under intense personal and political pressure from the authorities. The jaunty, neo-classical character of the Ninth Symphony (1945) prompted Shostakovich to remark that ‘musicians will like to play it, and critics will delight in blasting it’. Shostakovich’s startlingly different original draft for the opening of the Ninth’s first movement is available on 8.572138.
A third of a century after his death the symphonies of Dmitry Shostakovich have moved to the absolute centre of the repertoire. Written during World War II, the unusually constructed Eighth Symphony is a powerful work built on striking contrasts between music which is at times unremittingly bleak and at others brutally intense. The predominantly slow opening movement, punctuated by a terrifying central crescendo, is followed by a scherzo of savage parody. At the heart of the Symphony a second fast movement builds remorselessly to a shattering climax over pounding timpani. The rapt, largely introspective fourth movement, Largo, leads straight into the last movement, Allegretto, which seems to reach out for hope in an uncertain world. Vasily Petrenko’s acclaimed interpretations of Shostakovich’s SymphoniesNo. 11 (8.572082) and Nos. 5 and 9 (8.572167) are also available.
Shostakovich’s monumental Symphony No. 10 ranks among his finest works. From the bleak introspection of the extended opening movement, through the graphic evocation of violence in the explosive Allegro, and the eerie dance-like Allegretto alternating between dark and light, to the final movement’s dramatic climax, this is a work of breathtaking musical contrasts. In 2010 Vasily Petrenko was named Male Artist of the Year at the Classical Brit Awards. His Naxos recording of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 (8.572392), was hailed as ‘yet another Petrenko performance to join the greats’ (BBC Music Magazine).
Shostakovich’s First Symphony propelled the teenage composer to international prominence, its emotional range and innovative orchestration marking him as a daring and precocious talent on the scene. The Third Symphony, ‘The First of May’, originally intended as part of a symphonic cycle inspired by dates on the revolutionary calendar, has been described as ‘a reckless and at times chaotic accommodation between modernist intent and revolutionary fervour’. ‘Thrilling, perfect, essential…the modern reference recording’. (Classicstoday.com on Naxos 8.572461/ Symphony No. 10)
Shostakovich’s Sixth and Twelfth Symphonies both had their origins in large-scale projects about Lenin, though the Sixth was eventually to emerge as one of the composer’s most abstract and idiosyncratic symphonies. The long, intensely lyrical and meditative slow movement that opens the work is one of the composer’s most striking. The Twelfth, one of the least played of Shostakovich’s symphonies in the West, became less a celebration of Lenin’s legacy than a chronological depiction of events during the Bolshevik Revolution. ‘The playing is fabulously crisp and committed, while the interpretations combine atmosphere and a sense of proportion—to the benefit of the youthful First, which receives an eerily effective performance, free of exaggeration.’ (Financial Times on Naxos 8.572396 / Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3)
These two hugely contrasting symphonies come from the opposite ends of Shostakovich’s life and career. The Second Symphony was written to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik October Revolution. Its advanced idiom of experimental textures and abstract effects can perhaps be best described as organised musical chaos. The Fifteenth was Shostakovich’s last symphony and is filled with remarkable contrasts, from the rollicking quotes from Rossini’s William Tell Overture and eerie references to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung and Tristan und Isolde, to the last and perhaps most imaginative of the composer’s symphonic passacaglias.
Three weeks after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Shostakovich volunteered with the Home Guard in Leningrad. As the siege of the city intensified, he worked on his SeventhSymphony, completing three movements before being forced to leave Leningrad and travel east by train. The work was completed in December that year. Initially he gave each movement a programmatic title, but later withdrew them, leaving this epic work as an emblem of heroic defiance in the face of conflict and crisis: ‘I dedicate my Seventh Symphony to our struggle against fascism, to our coming victory over the enemy, to my native city, Leningrad.’