3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
The Milky Way of five-star reviews here is testimony to the success of the promotional campaign Naxos mounted for its replacement Shostakovich symphonies set, using a relatively inexperienced young conductor and a less-than-world-class orchestra. Endorsed by British music scholar David Fanning as being "a natural Englishman" for his conducting of music by British composers, the Leningrad-born Vasily Petrenko was named Young Artist of the Year in the 2007 Classic FM Gramophone Awards (the British version of the American Grammy awards), and his first recording -- Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony by Naxos with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra -- was singled out as the 2009 orchestral recording of the year by the eminent British publication, Gramophone magazine.
The first release in Petrenko's Shostakovich cycle, the Eleventh Symphony, received mixed reviews. The second -- the Fifth and Ninth symphonies -- was so bland I gave away my copy. Some critics called it "limp and unconvincing" and "overly cautious." This Eighth Symphony was the third to be issued, and to judge by these reviews, Petrenko and the Liverpool orchestra must have improved considerably. My ears, though, tell me differently.
One reviewer describes Petrenko's opening as "discreet," praising him for being innovative. What I hear, after a 12-second silent runoff, is an intentional misreading of the score. If you set your sound controls thinking the opening chord is fortissimo as Shostakovich indicates, you'll have a hard time hearing the pianissimo 10 bars later at rehearsal figure 1. What we have instead is closer to mezzo-forte, for which I discern no justification.
In this first movement -- and throughout the recording -- the strings sound thin, undernourished. Clearly missing are the 10 double-basses Shostakovich called for to give this symphony its particularly dark tone. Either the horns are overly challenged, or the recording engineers have done a poor job of microphone placement because they seem far in the background. Without wishing to belittle musicians' honest efforts, this is not the Royal Concertgebouw or the Chicago Symphony.
Petrenko takes the two scherzos much too fast. In the second scherzo, especially, Petrenko's fleet-footed 6:18 undercuts the movement's implacable march of destruction. (Compare Kurt Sanderling with the Berlin Symphony Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8, also an inferior orchestra nobody would mistake for the Berlin Philharmonic, at 6:47 to hear the relentless assault this movement should impart.) Most puzzling is the trumpet solo at the 3:26 mark, which is blatantly flat. I'm surprised a retake wasn't ordered. Regardless, at Petrenko's jaunty tempo, the trumpet evokes Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass rather than a menacing vision of a whirling nightmare circus.
The fourth movement Largo also suffers from a tempo too rapid. At 9:34, it sounds like a cork aimlessly bobbing downstream, occasionally bumping into an obstacle but continuing on its way with no disturbing apparitions, no mystery, no terror. Because there is no tension, the ending in C Major comes with no sense of arrival, of release. Compare Sanderling in this movement. It's not just his timing of 10:32, but his grip on sustaining the musical line. Also, the full compliment of double-basses mentioned earlier is noticeable by its absence in this movement.
A reasonable pacing of the symphony, going by the score, should take around 65 to 67 minutes. Petrenko's 61:57 (which includes the opening 12-second runoff) is somewhat misleading because he opens the Allegretto finale at a bizarrely slow pace -- much slower than the score's quarter-note = 132. As with his mezzo-forte beginning of the symphony, Petrenko's tempo deviation is pointless other than being different for the sake of being different.
Considering the prestigious award given Petrenko's CD of Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony, I expected the liner notes to mention the prominent quotations of Manfred's opening alienation motto at climactic points in the Shostakovich Eighth, in the first movement at 17:02 and in the finale at 8:47. Did no one notice?
Maybe later releases in Petrenko's series are better. His recording of the Tenth was endorsed by Fanning, who literally wrote the book on that symphony, and the July 2014 issue of DSCH Journal gave a glowing review to the last installment in Petrenko's series, the Fourteenth. Instead of this lightweight Eighth, however, I recommend Andris Nelsons and the Royal Concertgebouw, who offer a much more engaging experience on DVD and Blu-ray Lucerne Festival: Shostakovich Symphony No. 8 [Blu-ray]. That concert at Lucerne possesses everything Petrenko's recording lacks, including visual contact with the musicians. Too often, I think, we listen to CDs as though the music is generated by computers, forgetting it is possible to both hear music and see it being produced by flesh-and-blood human beings at the same time. The Lucerne concert proves we can.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
The old, former Naxos series of Shostakovich symphonies had Ladislav Slovak as their experienced, knowledge-able conductor. His readings were engaged and serious, hampered perhaps only by relying on a less than first-rate regional band?
Now Naxos looks to be radically enhancing their catalog via an ongoing Shostakovich symphony cycle from no less than rising Russian star conductor, Vasily Petrenko, and his Liverpool band. The previously released fifth, ninth, and eleventh symphonies were plenty treasure in their way, and the current eighth symphony keeps all the composer's banners flying high.
A compelling chemistry seems operative, among the composer, the band, and the conductor. To tell the truth, I wouldn't have necessarily predicted that the next alluring round of a complete Shostakovich symphony set would arrive from Liverpool. But Petrenko has them playing as well as many competitors in these works, and the inspiration is hot, palpable. Each instrumental department is very strong, with the strings showing an intense discipline and precision. The recording venue is the band's home hall in Liverpool, and so far it is also serving the music well.
Petrenko and company do very nicely at melding and balancing the narrative core strength of the composer's characteristic musical voice with its subterranean codes, obscurities, tortures, mysteries. Lights and dark darks are deftly contrasted and integrated. The threads of manic-crazy despair are not slighted, though lament also rings out, true. Those infamous middle fast movements have more than enough brutality to go round, and then some. In the midst of bludgeoning tyranny, forward motion still carries us into some kind of somewhere else where hope is not quite yet, completely and finally extinguished. The concluding Largo is chilling, consonant, and impersonal enough - we survivors do not yet comprehend very much of all that it means and can mean, to have survived.
Nary a cheap shot moment, then, across all the movements of this odd and remarkable modern symphony. Petrenko as guest conductor has been taking his reading of the eighth on the road, with spectacular concert reviews published in Baltimore, San Francisco, and by now, probably elsewhere. Fortunately, if you missed one of these outings with the eighth symphony, you still have this new disc, the third so far released by Naxos in an ongoing cycle.
If Petrenko and Liverpool can keep this sort of high quality Shostakovich up, they might just achieve one of the most compelling and consistently well-played complete sets. Okay, then, grab this one as soon as possible. The disc really ought to be nominated for something.