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My Classical Notes, February 2012

The Symphony #5 of Dmitri Shostakovich is an expression of profound human emotion. I hear in this music sounds of isolation, of anxiety, of suffering, longing, and remembrance of things long ago.

Conductor Vasiliy Petrenko and the Liverpool Orchestra play with power, sensitivity and with precision. © 2012 My Classical Notes Read complete review

Albert Imperato
The Huffington Post, February 2011

Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Philharmonic (Naxos) have gotten great reviews for their ongoing Shostakovich Symphony cycle, and at a budget price it is definitely worth trying…

Leslie Wright
MusicWeb International, December 2010

Petrenko’s Shostakovich series continues with stunning accounts of these two popular symphonies and at bargain price, too. The Ninth is especially fine and for me goes to the very top of the preferred versions. © 2010 MusicWeb International

Stephen Smoliar, October 2010

SHOSTAKOVICH, D.: Symphonies, Vol. 1 – Symphony No. 11, “The Year 1905” (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Petrenko) 8.572082
SHOSTAKOVICH, D.: Symphonies, Vol. 2 – Symphonies Nos. 5 and 9 (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Petrenko) 8.572167

Last May I wrote a review of the Naxos CD of Vasily Petrenko conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of the eighth C minor symphony (Opus 65) of Dmitri Shostakovich. This review had local significance because Petrenko had led the San Francisco Symphony in this same work the previous month. While the force of this composition is so intense in its despair that there could be no substitute for the earlier concert experience, the recording could at least revive memories of the impact of that experience.

By way of context, I explained that the CD was part of a project to record the complete canon of Shostakovich symphonies for Naxos:

The recording of Opus 65 is the third to be completed in this project, the first covering the eleventh symphony in G minor (Opus 103, known as “The Year 1905”) and the second coupling the D minor fifth symphony (Opus 47) with the E-flat major ninth (Opus 70).

I would now like to catch up with this project by examining these two earlier CDs.

The title of Opus 103 refers to the fact that it was originally intended to mark the 50th anniversary of the (failed) Russian Revolution of 1905. (Shostakovich’s following symphony bore the title “The Year 1917,” thus complementing the failure of the former attempt with the success of the latter.) The heart of the symphony is its second movement, entitled “The Ninth of January.” This was the day on which crowds descended upon the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg in the hope that a merciful czar would hear their grievances about government inefficiency, corruption, and harsh punishments. Instead they got more of that last, as the czar’s troops opened fire on them, resulting in a brutal massacre.

This second movement is preceded by “The Palace Square,” an ominously quiet introduction establishing the scene of this tragic demonstration. It is followed by an Adagio based on the funeral march “You Fell as Victims” and a concluding movement (“The Tocsin”) depicting the revival of the revolutionary spirit as an anticipation of the events to come in October of 1917. The Wikipedia entry includes an unattributed quotation describing the entire symphony as “a film score without the film.” Ironically, the only time I saw a screening of Sergei Eisenstein’s silent film, Ten Days that Shook the World, the print included a soundtrack that drew upon Shostakovich’s “1905 symphony,” rather than its “1917 successor,” which amounts to affirming that unattributed quotation. There is no doubt that the symphony has a strong narrative quality delivered with a rhetoric that recalls Sergei Prokofiev’s work with Eisenstein on the film Alexander Nevsky.

Petrenko clearly relishes the narrative force of this symphony. The second movement is executed as a series of episodes that follows the tragic arc of hopeful mass assembly climaxing in a bloody rout. For those who know the events, the foreboding of the opening movement approaches the unbearable; and the aftermath is agonizing. This is a performance that pulls out all the stops; and, when you think that no more can be said to describe the horrific incident, Shostakovich knocks the grief factor up a notch; and Petrenko follows with the Royal Liverpool giving him every ounce of their strength.

The same can be said of the much more familiar Opus 47 symphony. This is the symphony Shostakovich wrote in the hope of returning to Joseph Stalin’s good graces, and there will always be questions about whether the music has scrupulously concealed an ironic subtext. However, Petrenko seems more inclined to take the music at face value rather than confront these questions. Nevertheless, while many such surface-level readings of the score often come off as bloated tub-thumping pseudo-patriotism, Petrenko interprets the intensity of this score with the same respect he accorded to Opus 103. This is particularly evident in the coda of the final movement, which emerges as a gradually building crescendo that seems to increase without limit, rather than a sustained flag-waving hoorah at maximum volume. The success of Petrenko’s seriousness throws an entirely new light on this symphony; and, even if the irony is still there, it is delivered with more subtlety than one tends to expect.

The Opus 70, which is coupled with Opus 47 in the second recording in Petrenko’s set, is, on the other hand, “something completely different.” This is mostly likely a case where Shostakovich has dared to have a sense of humor; but he can do this because the butt of his joke has to do with other musicians, rather than government and politics. As might be guessed, the joke is that a “ninth symphony” must follow in the “tradition of monuments” established by Ludwig van Beethoven. The work not only is relatively brief (Petrenko’s performance takes less than half an hour) but also is downright frolicsome. One might almost compare it with Marcel Duchamp drawing a mustache on the “Mona Lisa.” Listening to this recording makes for a refreshing experience, a reminder that Shostakovich is not all intense seriousness and that Petrenko is as comfortable with his lighter side as he is with all of that darkness.

Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, April 2010

What struck me most was that, although there’s no lack of energy where it’s required, Petrenko points up all the moments of lyricism, especially in the Fifth—not all of them occurring where I had expected them.  This could easily have been my Download of the Month—there was considerable competition.

The quality of the new recording sent me back to Petrenko’s version of the Eleventh Symphony (Naxos 8.572082)…Bob Briggs…made it Recording of the Month—see review…Hearing it straight after the new recording, I begin to think that it’s the work itself that is the problem, rather than the performance.  Petrenko’s recording is about as good as any that I have heard…

Tony Way
The Age, February 2010

How satisfying to have these two popular, contrasting symphonies in strong performances on a single budget-priced disc. Petrenko seems to wring practically every last drop of emotion (and volume) from his Liverpool forces in the dramatic Fifth, while producing some wonderfully light, colourful playing in the buffo Ninth. Both conductor and orchestra seem to understand the music from the inside and they produce some electrifying moments, occasionally pushing the engineering to its limits. The stark menace at the opening of the Fifth is well conveyed and carefully woven into the pathos of the symphony as a whole, while the Ninth sparkles with Shostakovich’s unique neo-classical wit. Orchestral playing throughout is very fine; the high string playing has a “grainy” quality reminiscent of some early recordings of this music and the winds have consistently good intonation. I look forward to some more Shostakovich from this source. In the meantime, you will probably want to play this disc often and loudly.

William Hedley
MusicWeb International, February 2010

Most of those who bought Petrenko’s Liverpool Shostakovich 11 [8.572082] will want this disc too. They’ll be right, it’s a magnificent achievement and, at the price, an outstanding bargain.

Two things strike the unprepared listener when hearing this performance of the Ninth for the first time. The first is the remarkable unanimity of the playing, by which I don’t only mean the ensemble, which is disciplined and tight, but also the sense of unanimity of purpose, a group of musicians playing together in the same spirit and with the same goal. They really listen to each other, and are clearly convinced and motivated by their conductor’s vision and methods. The second is the remarkable quality of the solo playing, so important in this work whose very sound is dominated by the woodwind. I found myself wondering at the sheer bravery of principals in an orchestra. How would you like to be the RLPO’s first clarinet, for example, the night before this recording, thinking about the minute-long solo, barely accompanied by a few pizzicato strings, preserved for posterity by an unforgiving microphone? Or the first bassoonist, allocated about the same amount of time to fill our hearts with Russian gloom whilst sitting in an art deco hall in Liverpool? Well, this has always been a fine orchestra, but a number of initiatives in recent years, not least the appointment in 2006 of Vasily Petrenko as Principal Conductor has transformed it into one of world class. You won’t hear cleaner playing than that of the opening of the Ninth, nor more brilliantly unanimous driving rhythms than those of the absurdly brief third movement. The symphony, short and brisk, disappointed the authorities who were expecting an imposing work to complete the trilogy begun with the seventh and eighth symphonies. It is apparently an optimistic work, rather carefree, but if Shostakovich ever penned a single unequivocal bar of music I don’t know where to find it, and this symphony is certainly as enigmatic as the others, with its real meaning perhaps even better hidden than most. Whether we would think as much of it were it not part of this particular composer’s canon is another matter. Had it come from the pen of Kabalevsky or Khachaturian I think we might have dismissed it as something inconsequential. I’m very attached to Bernstein’s 1965 New York performance, similarly coupled (Sony, Bernstein Century Series), and wonder if he was not well advised, surprisingly for him, to avoid Petrenko’s extremes of tempo for the second and third movements. Then there are other performances from the Russian greats of an older generation which perhaps sound more authentic. But I think the next time I want to listen to the Ninth it will be Petrenko and his Liverpool ensemble that I will take down from the shelves.

The disembodied tone of the first violins in the sixth bar of the Fifth Symphony immediately announce another distinguished performance. It is left to the piano, staccato, to introduce the faster, central section of this first movement, and it is in this passage that we first encounter a characteristic of this performance, which is a certain excitability, with a tendency to slightly self-conscious tempo changes. The closing pages of the movement are as desolate as one will hear anywhere, though. The woodwinds are brilliantly perky in the scherzo, and the orchestra’s leader, unnamed, is outstandingly good in the short violin solo. I miss some bite from the horns here, as I also do in the faster section of the first movement, but only because I’m thinking of the Vienna Philharmonic horn section for Jansons on EMI, as hollow and menacing as you are ever likely to hear. The individual strands of the string writing in the opening paragraph of the slow movement are analytically clear, allowing us to savour the sometimes unnoticed piquancy of the harmony, and this attention to harmonic detail is also a feature of the performance as a whole. The flute and harp passage at figure 79 in the score [3:02] is beautifully done, but this ends with an indication to hold back and then immediately return to the basic pulse. Here, however, Petrenko launches the following section at a tempo significantly slower, and though this is undeniably expressive and powerful, I wonder if the performance doesn’t feature a little too much of this kind of freedom in the face of what is marked in the score. There are many examples of this, as there are of places where he encourages his players, wind soloists in particular, to rhythmic freedom at the ends of phrases, expressiveness which can sometimes seem pasted on rather than growing naturally out of the musical material. The climax of the movement is excellent, as is that of the first movement, though the superb Liverpool orchestra cannot yet muster the sheer power of the finest European or Russian ensembles. The often ethereal pianissimo playing, on the other hand, is outstanding. The finale is brilliantly played, but the most controversial feature of this performance is likely to be Petrenko’s way with the closing pages, dogged and defiant rather than victorious, as is the way nowadays, but slower and heavier than I think I have ever heard them. This would be sensational in a live performance, particularly since the ensemble sustains the heavy pulse valiantly right up to the final chord, but whether one really wants to hear this passage so drawn out every time is another matter.

To sum up, this is a fine performance of the Fifth and one not to be missed. Petrenko’s is quite an individual view, and a challenging one which demands to be heard, even if listeners may not be in sympathy with every aspect of it.

Paul Sarcich
Music & Vision, January 2010

Great Poise

Daniel Barenboim, in his book Everything is Connected, propounds that because of the political situation during the Cold War, Shostakovich was misrepresented and that performances of his music in the West ‘acquired a one-dimensional character and superficial brilliance very far removed from the sarcasm or irony intended by the composer’.

So, where are we twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet, in the hands of a Russian conductor who was only thirteen at the time? On this evidence, Petrenko can certainly not be accused of superficial brilliance, but nor is one overwhelmed by sarcasm or irony. He brings care and attention to the works rather than risk-taking, control rather than soul-baring.

This is evident in the opening section of the Fifth Symphony, where a steady tempo and careful playing produces a brooding atmosphere rather than a fearful one.

This gives an idea of the introverted reading, the space allowed the viola and flute solos heightening the feel of the ‘individual alone’. The entrance of the piano and horns is not as disturbing as in many other versions, nor are the following trumpets as angry. In general, the strings and winds are placed very forward in the recording and the brass too far back, meaning that climactic points (eg at 12:34 or 13:30) are not as powerful and demanding as they could be. The recapitulation of the second main theme (14:02) gives the impression that Petrenko sees the emotional heart of the work in the quiet passages rather than the barnstorming stuff, as at where he achieves a genuinely strange and worrying background texture for the solos, and keeps the disturbing atmosphere up until the end.

The second movement tends to the comfortable side of bitingly acerbic, although at the horns manage to give the impression of blowing a raspberry at authority, while the following violin solo catches the cocking-a-snook mood too. But overall one feels Petrenko is being over-careful here, delivering clean, balanced, articulate playing but missing opportunities for sudden and startling textural changes.

He seems far more at home in the third movement, the string swells engendering a real sense of pain, with great poise in the playing, and a well-controlled buildup to the central Mussorgskian section—pulling forth associations with the more desolate parts of Boris Godunov and Khovantschina. Petrenko’s very careful shadings of dynamic make it all the more operatic, the cellos in particular keeping the sense of tragic aria going. The very subdued and atmospheric recapitulation does at last give a real sense of repression.

The fourth movement brings forth something of what seemed to be missing in the second: a willingness to go for sudden changes of mood. Although the brass and timpani are given their head at the opening, there is no sense that things will ever run out of control and a pogrom be upon us. There is sparkling playing from the strings and woodwind in all the running material, but at 2:24 the solo trumpet suffers badly from being too far back in the mix, as does the harp at 7:27 where it is unable to give the feeling of having capped the previous sequence. As for the famous ending, which Richard Whitehouse in his program notes describes as ‘pivoting between affirmation and uncertainty’, it to my ears fell well to the affirmative side. It is all well under control, no hint of hysteria, and even with Shostakovich’s over-the-top doubling of bass drum with timpani (on this occasion obliterating the timpani tonality completely), one cannot help feeling that Stalin and his cultural henchmen might have approved. Any anguish in this reading is to be found in the quiet sections, and Petrenko makes a persuasive case that this is what Shostakovich might have intended.

If one wants to be superficial with Shostakovich, the Ninth Symphony would seem the ideal vehicle. On the surface far less enigmatic than the Fifth, its hi-jinks nevertheless disguise some dark and brooding corners. A suitably chirpy first movement, with a fizzing energy and fine subito dynamic changes, brings forth a blatant trombone and light-hearted piccolo to answer, without pushing things to grotesquerie.

The second opens with a nicely poised clarinet solo and restrained woodwind work giving a suitable melancholic air.

2:54-3:20 shows a dark but warm string sound, a quality of yearning, and again a carefully-controlled buildup. The movement overall offsets well the twin poles of warmth and desolation, Petrenko keeping the background material well under the concluding solos and again giving the impression that he is more at home in the slow movements.

The third movement is high-spirited without ever becoming raucous, the trumpet solo is allowed to cut through here, and despite a slight sense of rhythmic strain at odd moments, the spirits are maintained. In the fourth, the pompous brass fanfares are not overblown but as controlled as everything else and the bassoon cadenzas, particularly the second, bring more pathos to proceedings.

The fifth movement to some may lack urgency in the middle sections, but there is no doubting the clarity of the playing and recording. It does not seem to wind up until around 3:50, and regrettably the brass are again under-represented at critical points.

In summary, this reading is not as riotous as some you will hear, and Petrenko is too serious to just do ‘playful’ and leave it at that, but it is a splendid vehicle for showing off the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra winds in particular.

The disc as a whole exudes care and thoughtfulness in approach rather than letting the raw Russian passions off the leash, but thanks to the playing of the RLPO and the production and engineering of Andrew Walton and Phil Rowlands, it is one to be recommended. There can never be a definitive reading of a Shostakovich symphony because of the cloud of enigma surrounding the man, but we may enjoy interpretations such as this.

Leslie Wright
MusicWeb International, January 2010

Something special would have to make me recommend a CD containing two of Shostakovich’s most popular symphonies, especially the ubiquitous Fifth. Before doing some comparisons with a few recordings of the past, I can state outright that these performances, as part of Petrenko’s continuing cycle, are more than competitive with their illustrious predecessors. Petrenko indeed has the measure of both works and he has the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic sounding a world-class ensemble. Furthermore, the recorded sound is full and vibrant, leaving little to be desired.

My introduction to the Shostakovich Fifth was sometime in 1959 or 1960 when I heard the Leonard Bernstein recording, fresh from the orchestra’s successful Moscow performances. I was blown away by that recording. What a shock, then, to hear it a number of years later as performed by the USSR State Symphony under the composer’s son. It sounded like a different work, especially the finale which I thought ridiculously slow and pompous. The orchestra sounded rough—especially next to the sleek New York Philharmonic—and the recording was frankly awful in the pressing I heard. Of course, this was before the so-called Shostakovich memoirs as related by Solomon Volkov came out. Nowadays Bernstein sounds ludicrously fast, if still brilliant. Living in the Washington, DC area I had the opportunity to get to appreciate Mstislav Rostropovich’s interpretations with the National Symphony Orchestra. Petrenko’s account of the finale reminds me of Rostropovich’s with the coda hammered out as slowly as possible and a forced “triumph” that’s hard to endure. It is extremely powerful and very convincing on its own terms. I compared this new version with three others, not having one of Rostropovich’s to hand: Bernstein’s (1959), Haitink’s, with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Ashkenazy’s, with the Royal Philharmonic, and Maxim Shostakovich’s, with the London Symphony. Here are the timings:





















M. Shostakovich










As you can see from the above, there is no consensus on tempos for the individual movements, except maybe the second movement, Scherzo. Nor should there necessarily be. This is what makes having different interpretations of the standard repertoire valuable. Tempos do not tell the whole story by far, but comparing Bernstein’s and Petrenko’s timings for the finale is very telling! Another characteristic that distinguishes this new account is the huge dynamic range, from the softest pianissimos to the loudest fortissimos I have ever heard in this symphony. Part of this may be due to the recording, but I think most of the credit must go to the conductor and orchestra. Next to Petrenko, Haitink seems rather urbane but still convincing and beautifully played. Ashkenazy, whose recording was my preferred CD version until now, presents more of a middle-of-the-road view, blessed by vivid sonics on his Decca recording. However, I now find the added horn and trumpet swoops, à la Mahler, in the second movement, irritating on repetition. Maxim Shostakovich’s account is rather odd, I think. After his unrefined, but idiomatic USSR Symphony version, he smoothed out all the edges when he recorded it with the London Symphony. It is no doubt wonderfully played, with especially gorgeous horns in the Scherzo, but leaves little impact. The recording is also more distant than the others and may contribute to this impression. I have not heard his more recent account with Prague Symphony, but others have found it an improvement over the London version. Right now, having heard the Petrenko quite a few times, I would place it at or near the top of the heap. It will be the one I will listen to now whenever I’m in the mood for this particular work, which is not all that often.

The Ninth Symphony, though, is one of my favorite Shostakovich symphonies. Here my basis for comparison, and my favored CD version, is Neeme Järvi’s with the Scottish National Orchestra on Chandos. Järvi brings out the humor in the score as well as I have ever heard it. Drawbacks are the less than perfect tuning of the trombones in the fourth movement and the reverberant recording which has a longer decay than is optimal for this symphony. Right from the beginning, I was impressed with the sound on the new Petrenko recording of this symphony. It is very clear, yet not at all clinical and with plenty of warmth where required. Also the orchestra performs here at least as well as it does in the Fifth. I should especially mention the outstanding clarinetist in the second movement, and equally outstanding trombones (with tuba) and bassoon in the fourth. No tuning problems there. Where I still have a preference for the Järvi is in the gruff humor he finds in the symphony. Petrenko’s is a more subtle, classical account without the humor being as obvious. His tempos are also more extreme. For example, his second movement Moderato takes 8:47 whereas Järvi gets through it in 6:31. It is marked moderato, after all. Still, Petrenko does not sound slow and is convincing. His third movement Presto, on the other hand, is faster than any version I have heard—truly presto. It is exhilarating and the orchestra manages to keep up miraculously well. Järvi’s is only 12 seconds longer, but seems noticeably slower. Petrenko is as light as a feather here and the music just breezes by. So again, Petrenko has given us a good alternative to other favorite versions.

To sum up: at the level of musicianship present in this new recording, we definitely need another Shostakovich Fifth and Ninth Symphony pairing, particularly at Naxos’ bargain price. I must also mention the excellent notes by Richard Whitehouse that not only discuss the works at hand, but also trace the composer’s symphonic development.

David Nice
BBC Music Magazine, December 2009

A truly breathtaking response from Vasily Petrenko and his now world-class Liverpudlians…superb playing all round.

David Gutman
Gramophone, December 2009

St Petersburg comes to Liverpool in an impressive Shostakovich symphony coupling…the performance as a whole is deft and undeniably persuasive…If things continue like this Petrenko may well prove himself an orchestra builder of distinction in the Koussevitsky mould. Recommended.

Richard Lawrence
Classic FM, December 2009

The long violin lines in No. 5 are expressively done, and the woodwind and brass are first-class throughout., November 2009

Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra are already well on their way to producing what could be the best Shostakovich cycle of all. Their new recording of Symphonies Nos. 5 and 9 fulfills the promise of their first CD, of Symphony No. 11 [8.572082]—an unusual choice to start a complete set of Shostakovich symphonies, but one that they pulled off brilliantly. Now they have turned to better-known, more-often-heard symphonies and produced equally fine results. The surprising thing here is the attention Petrenko gives to the quiet passages—an approach that would seem to make more sense in, say, Mahler, than in Shostakovich, who often comes across with all the subtlety of a battering ram. Petrenko finds subtleties in these works that most other conductors miss or gloss over: the solo violin passages in No. 5, for example, and the quicksilver flashiness of the third movement of No. 9—here taken at a true Presto, which is how it is marked but which is a tempo that conductors rarely attempt for it. Because Petrenko is at such pains to get the details and quiet passages of these symphonies right, the more bombastic—and simply louder—music comes off far better as well. The problematic finale of No. 5, for example, starts with speed and triumphalism, but by the last section—which Petrenko, like some other conductors, takes quite slowly—there is an ambiguity about the movement that fits well with current thinking that this work was less a celebration of Socialist Realism than a necessary accommodation to it. As for No. 9, its classical balance and sardonic modernism exist in an uneasy melding here—witness, among many examples, the piccolo tune in the first movement—and the result is a symphony that keeps listeners slightly off-balance in a very engaging and thought-provoking way. Indeed, “thought-provoking” is a good description of all three Shostakovich symphonies recorded so far by Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, of which he has been Principal Conductor since 2006. Petrenko has some genuine insights into Shostakovich’s music, and will hopefully continue sharing them with listeners as this series progresses.

Jerry Fink
Toronto Star, November 2009

Three years into his principal conductor’s gig at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Russian Vasily Petrenko is showing off a tight, muscular-sounding band that brings out all the drama of two great symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich—the dark No. 5, from 1937, and the more lyrical No. 9, from 1945—without ever going overboard with the contrasts. It’s a nice blend of Russian emotion and English reserve, at a budget-disc price.

David Hurwitz, November 2009

Vasily Petrenko is an outstanding Shostakovich conductor, as attentive to small details as he is to larger issues of structure and balance; his Fifth Symphony offers as fine an interpretation as any available. The first movement builds inexorably to a perfectly timed climax. He adopts a wide range of tempos without ever sounding too slow in the outer sections, and the ghostly coda, with the final fadeout perfectly timed, is exquisite. The scherzo’s inherent clunkiness never turns into mannerism (the music needs little help), while the Largo has just the right hushed intensity, superbly sustained. Petrenko takes the slow option for the coda of the finale, and once again builds the climaxes as well as anyone ever has. A terrific performance.

The Ninth also has a lot to recommend it. The Liverpool wind players really do themselves proud, especially in the first two movements. Petrenko pushes the scherzo a bit faster than the strings can readily manage, and this smears their rhythmic articulation in the central trio section with solo trumpet, but that’s the only reservation I have about this performance, and it’s a very minor one.

Sonically though, there’s a lack of bass to the string sound that seems endemic to English orchestras these days, though the engineering also seems to give the cellos and basses short shrift. That the issue may be one of microphone placement rather than any serious deficiency in the playing itself gains some support in listening to the coda of the Fifth’s finale. There, those endlessly repeated “A’s” in the violins and piano favor the keyboard in a manner that you’ll never hear balanced in a live performance. None of this detracts from Petrenko’s achievement, though. He’s building up a series well worth hearing.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2009

So much is expected of this new Shostakovich symphony cycle from Vasily Petrenko, one of the most exciting conductors Russia has produced in recent times, and this new edition will certainly not disappoint. It may be pure coincidence that his interpretation of the Fifth runs in parallel with Karel Ancerl’s remarkable account from the early 1960s, and seems to portray the composer’s turbulent emotions as he fought for his artistic existence. The opening is cold and desolate, and as the mood swings from optimism to trepidation for his own future, both Ancerl and Petrenko use extremes of the tempos within those indicated. The quiet passages are almost whispered in secret conversation, and contrasts with the towering brass-led fortissimos. There is a fluidity in the structure that often sectionalises movements, and a feeling of despair in the Moderato that rises to an impassioned scream. And not since Ancerl has the work’s closing moments been taken at such a steady and inevitable tread, for there here exists none of the elation we find in most performances. That I have held the Ancerl recording way above any other would also infer that I would place Petrenko in the upper echelon of an already over-crowded market, but like Ancerl it will polarize opinion. His Ninth is more ‘traditional’ the Liverpool orchestra revelling in the virtuosity of the score with some particularly beautiful bassoon solos, and I was pleased that Petrenko spares that mad charge through the finale that has become all too frequent. The engineers have accommodated the vast dynamic range, so play the opening at a barely audible level and leave the volume control there.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group