Friday, January 14, 2011

Spellbinding: Dmitry Shostakovich’s Symphony No.10 (RLPO conducted by Vasily Petrenko)

Shostakovich's Symphony No.10 is a jewel in the composer's life. Considered his most autobiographical work, this recording by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vasily Petrenko (Naxos, 2011), is a tour de force. Led by Petrenko since 2005, the RLPO (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra) has now set a new standard in the performance of Russian music.

The RLPO are no strangers to Shostakovich having recorded his Symphonies No.5, No.9, No.8, and No.11 already. But this experience has truly challenged the musicians and the audience in ways they couldn't possibly have imagined. Featuring an introspective opening movement that’s followed by a buoyant second, a reflective third and a fourth that opens with an andante tempo (followed by a spirited allegro), No. 10 avoids the accessible approach most orchestras would take for commercial success. The Naxos label, which continues to release as many different types of music as possible, has given Petrenko, a young, unproven Russian conducting a British orchestra, a daring opportunity. And we, as listeners, are truly rewarded for it.

Josef Stalin
Symphony No.10 [in E minor] was written eight years after the whimsical No. 9, debuting in 1953, several months after the death of Josef Stalin. Shostakovich needed more time to write the piece quite possibly because it didn't come easily. In 1948, though, the Soviet government had denounced him for his “formalism.” His music was then banned and he had to publicly recant. But he did find work by composing scores for Russian motion pictures. Sketches of the 10th were discovered as early as 1946, lying around while he worked on other compositions. So by the time he put it all together, Shostakovich assembled a symphony as much about his life as it was about Stalin. 

The four movements contrast one another in many ways; the first is introspective and moody, while the second movement is short and brisk almost like Stalin's temper. The third movement has a dance-like appeal while the last movement, inspired by Gustav Mahler, is a slow lament with a bright finale.

Dmitri Shostakovich
On this new recording, the playing is unbelievable: perfect synchronicity between the violins and the percussion drives the whole work. The performance is focused, well-balanced and it literally lifts you out of your chair. The second movement is taken so fast that you think the orchestra won't be able to sustain it, but they do in remarkable style. In fact, this orchestra likes to play fast tempos. For instance, the opening movement of the familiar Symphony No.9 by Shostakovich is taken at breakneck speed. The playing is unified, full of humour and with acoustic colours rarely achieved when symphonic tempos are taken so quickly.

For this work, Petrenko has placed emphasis on the composer’s intention and the melody rather than any implied meaning of the symphony. This approach brings a musical freshness to the piece because he honours the original tempo markings and pays heed to the crescendos and diminuendos required to express the deeper meaning. In other words, Petrenko keeps it simple and lets the band read it off the page, as it were, while adding nuance along the way. It works beautifully because Petrenko knows what he wants from the orchestra and he's clearly sparked by their collective imagination as musicians. As a player myself, I love it when the conductor allows the musician a certain degree of freedom of expression within his own vision rather than trying to make the performer regurgitate simply what he wants. For the RLPO, Petrenko seems to have asked his musicians to play with a bold and colourful tone which allows their personality to flourish. He gets results that are at once efficient and dynamic.

For Petrenko and the RLPO, this recording stands as a fine balance between what could be considered "Russian" and what can be identified as Shostakovich, in style, focus and musicality. It's a work and a performance that leaves you spellbound upon repeated listening.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, writer and theatre director.

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