Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphonies: No. 1; No. 3,
“The First of May”
Vasily Petrenko, cond; Royal Liverpool PO & Ch
NAXOS 8.572396 (64: 33)
Unless I have lost count, this is the fifth release in Vasily Petrenko’s Shostakovich series for Naxos. Not one of them has been less than recommendable, and this new one is no different, although collectors are entitled to their preferences and prejudices, of course.
I’d really like to play the First Symphony
for a lecture hall filled with freshmen and sophomores from my university, and ask them, “Listen to what somebody composed when he was your age! Why can’t you do that instead of spending the weekend drinking cheap beer and playing World of Warcraft?” I’m afraid it would fall on deaf ears, though. This would be an impressive work from a composer of any age, but it is doubly so for someone who still was a conservatory student. It seems to play itself. I must have heard 15–20 different recordings and live performances of this symphony, and none of them have been unsatisfactory. I cut my teeth on Eugene Ormandy’s recording of this (still available in Sony Classical’s “Great Performances” series), and what Ormandy has going for him is the superb playing of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and a more straightforward, kinetic interpretation. In my experience, Petrenko is not someone who distorts the music he conducts by imposing a lot of tempo and dynamic changes on it. Still, this reading is a little more brash and changeable than Ormandy’s, who gives this music
, or an emotional depth perhaps beyond its years.
The Third Symphony is more infrequently played, not just because it impractically requires a chorus during its last five minutes (and to praise socialism, no less), but also because it (paradoxically) is less mature than the First Symphony. Many of Shostakovich’s admirers shrug it off (with the Second and 12th symphonies) without much comment, or with faint apologies. Without wanting to banish it from the composer’s symphonic canon, I’ve never found much enthusiasm for it. Petrenko’s reading is so full of good humor—and perhaps a little sarcasm—that I find myself enjoying this symphony more than usual. I don’t want to propose a revisionist interpretation (e.g., “Shostakovich was actually making fun of May Day celebrations”), but perhaps there’s an Ivesian imp at work here, a desire to be iconoclastic. In 1930, when this symphony appeared, it may have been possible to write music that appealed to the bourgeoisie as long as you gave it a proletarian hook. Petrenko’s total timing of 31: 10 is in the middle of the pack, but the colorful playing of the Liverpudlians makes it all seem very bright and energetic. The chorus also is spirited, but not coarse. The only thing that threw me off was the booklet’s translation of the Russian word
as “fabrics.” Surely that should be “factories”? (I am not sure how a bolt of corduroy, for example, or even serge, could organize a May Day parade.)
This series has been notable for the rare photos of the composer it has used on its booklet covers. Naxos has come up with a real winner this time: The impossibly teenaged composer, wearing a beret, is seen holding a cat, who looks none too pleased with the situation. Nevertheless, cat fanciers appreciate the suggestion that Shostakovich was one of us!
FANFARE: Raymond Tuttle
Vasily Petrenko's take on the First Symphony is swift and youthful, as befits this precocious early work. In the first movement he doesn't wring every drop of sardonic humor from the music, and in the march-like climaxes the principal trumpet gets lost in the shuffle, but the music has an unusual degree of continuity. The scherzo is brilliant, the slow movement expressive but unsentimental, exactly as it should be. And the finale seldom has sounded better, with the orchestra's strings really doing themselves proud in the coda. Like all of the releases in this series so far, this is world-class.
The same observations apply to the Third Symphony. No one especially likes this piece, which is at once gaudy and angular, with a noisy socialist-realist final chorus about the joys of industrialization and the like. It's difficult to take seriously, but even so there's enormous craft in the writing, and some curiously memorable moments (the "Beethoven's Ninth on acid" orchestral recitative before the entry of the chorus, for example). The sonics are a touch dry but suit the music well, and the chorus sings with enthusiasm and probably more polish than its music deserves. Buy with confidence.
--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 1 in F minor, Op. 10 by Dmitri Shostakovich
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1924-1925; USSR
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