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Shostakovich: Symphony No 14 / Petrenko

Release Date: 04/29/2014 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8573132   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Dmitri Shostakovich
Performer:  Gal JamesAlexander Vinogradov
Conductor:  Vasily Petrenko
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 0 Hours 50 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

This is a sensational performance, the first that truly vies with the classic Rostropovich/Vishnevskaya/ Reshetin for supremacy. Vasily Petrenko enjoys the distinct advantage of two absolutely fabulous young soloists. Soprano Gal James has a nice Slavic tang to her timbre (she is in fact Israeli), but with no attendant Slavic wobble and not a trace of shrillness. Her plaintive lyrical singing in The Suicide is as harrowing as her laughter in Madame, look! sounds diabolical.

Baritone Alexander Vinogradov looks like he’s about 12, but he has a deep, rich voice that’s rock-steady and smooth as silk. Although he’s listed here as a baritone, he really has the range of a bass and the
Read more music’s lower passages give him no trouble. Like James, he has a tremendous expressive range, from the desolation of At the Santé Jail to the vicious insults of The Zaporozhian Cossacks’ Reply to the Sultan of Constantinople. With both singers you can understand the text so clearly that you could practically take dictation (assuming you wanted to).

As for the conducting, Petrenko is more than gripping. This symphony, with its 11 poems about death, easily can become an exercise in gloom. But Shostakovich hated death; he feared it, but it also disgusted him. He reacted to these poems with visceral expressive power, and Petrenko captures every mood, from the feverish waltz of Malagueña, to the urgent yearning of O Delvig, Delvig! In Petrenko’s hands, we become supremely conscious of how Shostakovich achieves moments of exquisite beauty using the simplest of means–a wandering string line in De profundis or The Death of the Poet–or passages of sardonic humor with the militant rhythm of the tom-toms in On Watch.

The sonics are crystal clear, and if the balances favor the voices, the singing is so superb that we can only welcome the attention. This is just stunning, one of the finest releases in what is already an exceptional cycle.

– David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com


Shostakovich’s recurring, some would say unabated, obsession with human misery and suffering, reaches new depths of baleful gloom and doom in his penultimate 14th Symphony. Based on poems by García Lorca, Apollinaire, Rilke, and Wilhelm Küchelbecker, the work is more orchestrated song cycle than symphony, evoking comparisons to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde . Typologically, there are certainly similarities—a large-scaled quasi-symphonic score comprised of elaborated song-movements alternately assigned to a male and a female voice—but spiritually, Shostakovich’s song-cycle symphony is more closely related to Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death.

Though Mussorgsky had composed his song cycle for voice and piano, the work had already attracted the interest of Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov, and Shostakovich in orchestrating it, which they all did; and apparently it was Mussorgsky’s opus that fueled Shostakovich’s desire to compose a more extended, original work of his own along similar lines. The incentive to do so finally came in 1969, as Shostakovich lay recuperating in a Moscow hospital.

For a Shostakovich symphony the scoring is quite modest, a chamber-sized orchestra calling only for strings and percussion. The percussion section, however, consists of quite an array of unusual instruments: castanets, xylophone, vibraphone, tom-toms, wood block, whip, campane (a type of primitive bell), and celesta. The more usual percussion battery of timpani, bass drum, cymbals, and triangle is absent.

Just as the instrumentation deviates from the norm, so too do the poems Shostakovich chose for his work. They’re not about the normal and natural experience of dying that comes to all mortals, they’re about the unnatural and violent death that cuts down the living in their prime—murder, suicide, execution, and war.

With the arrival of this release, Vasily Petrenko is just one symphony shy of completing his Shostakovich cycle; No. 13 is all that remains. Overall, I think it’s fair to say that this has shaped up to be a praiseworthy effort and a quite competitive addition to the Shostakovich symphony discography; and this performance of No. 14 may be the best of the entire lot. For sure, it’s one of the best versions of the work I’ve heard.

Alexander Vinogradov is identified as a baritone, but his voice has the depth and darkness of a Boris Christoff or Alexander Kipnis. From the moment he opens his mouth in the first song, “De profundis,” I was frozen in place by the utter bleakness of it and, to use Bertrand Russell’s words, by “that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss.”

Voice-wise, Gal James is perhaps not quite as arresting—I prefer a bit heavier or darker soprano voice in the female songs, perhaps like that brought to them by Larissa Gogolevskaja in her performance with Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra—but what James brings to her songs in dramatic elocution of the texts and conveyance of the emotional contexts is as riveting as Vinogradov’s contributions.

Petrenko leads the Liverpool orchestra in a performance that highlights the instruments in stark relief against Shostakovich’s often shockingly graphic scoring. Listen, for example, to the amazing detail that emerges from the percussion section in the fifth song, “On Watch”; or the incredible string articulation in the third song, “Lorelei.”

This Shostakovich 14th, in my opinion, ranks among the very best, and the best in the case of this particular symphony isn’t terribly recent. There are two recordings featuring Galina Vishnevskaya and Mark Reshetin, one now on Brilliant Classics with Rudolf Barshai leading the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, and the other originally on Melodiya with Mstislav Rostropovich conducting the Moscow Philharmonic Soloists. If I’m not mistaken, I believe this latter-named recording is the same one transferred to Warner Classics that is available as part of Rostropovich’s complete Shostakovich symphony cycle, the rest of which was made with Washington D. C.’s National Symphony and the London Symphony in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But Rostropovich didn’t rerecord the 14th Symphony for the cycle, and so the 1973 recording was included in the set, with the orchestra now renamed the Academic Symphony Orchestra of the Moscow State Philharmonic. If I’m wrong on this point, I’m sure a colleague or reader will be quick to point it out.

Among more recent versions, Jansons’s earlier mentioned Bavarian Radio recording of 2005 is, I think, a very fine one, and Simon Rattle’s 2005 reading with Karita Mattila, Thomas Quasthoff, and the Berlin Philharmonic has received positive notices as well. But the fact is that Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony, while not his least recorded, hasn’t garnered some of the big-name attention that several of the others have.

To have a new version then, and in such a stunning performance and recording as this one by Petrenko, James, Vinogradov, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, and Naxos is very welcome indeed, and urgently recommended.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 14 in G minor, Op. 135 by Dmitri Shostakovich
Performer:  Gal James (Soprano), Alexander Vinogradov (Bass)
Conductor:  Vasily Petrenko
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1969; USSR 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 , September 10, 2014 By John T. (Kingston, Australian Capital Territory) See All My Reviews "Shostakovich is one of my favourite composers, but had not heard the 14th before. I was disappointed to find it a bit thin overall, despite excellent singing" Report Abuse
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