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In the wake of his Naxos recording of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 8 (8.572392), hailed as 'yet another Petrenko performance to join the greats' (BBC Music magazine), comes this much-anticipated interpretation of Shostakovich's massive Symphony No. 10, which ranks among his most important and consistently popular works. Branded with his musical monogram DSCH, it embarks on a profoundly personal journey from fearful brooding to thunderous triumph. In 2010 Vasily Petrenko was named Male Artist of the Year at the Classical Brit Awards, a testament to his galvanizing achievements with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Listen to an interview about the new recording here:
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Vasily Petrenko, by now a Shostakovich interpreter to be reckoned with, handles every note to perfection, and what a first-class orchestra the RLPO has become over the last decade! Every instrument group, sounding smooth as silk, shines like a midsummer sunrise and even the subtlest phrasing is in perfect sync. This is praise indeed - but therein, oddly enough, lies also my only real reservation when comparing this recording to others of equal standing.
Many years ago a critic for Gramophone magazine, when reviewing a Mahler recording by Leonard Bernstein, could not help complaining that once more the conductor just simply had to squeeze that last drop of neurotic angst out of the music, and this technique was beginning to feel a bit "over-done". He may have had a point, but once you've grown accustomed to heart-on-sleeve interpretations the "straight-up stuff" tends to come across as just a tiny bit bland (or under-salted, to stay in the technical language of the kitchen), and, to me at least, there was a spot or two in Petrenko's reading that was just a tad too straight forward. One example is the little valse grotesque of the third movement (at 7'52); this is played technically without fault but with the very stiffest of upper lips. If you turn to say Solti's recording (Decca 433 073-2) his sudden drop of pace from waltz to slightly wobbly Ländler turns the dance into something like a struggle to get out of the quicksand of a seemingly paralysed everyday life. Or Sanderling's (Naïve V 4973 live) all but impossible accelerando in the same place, that introduces a quasi-schizoid slapstick element to the otherwise grey and icy movement. Little things like that can make quite a difference. The allegro (rather trying for presto furioso, as seems to be the trend these days) is extremely effective, but again Sanderling achieves a somehow more biting - or menacing - effect at a slower tempo. All in all, I miss something a bit angular (or even abrasive) in this performance, but for that to make its mark maybe the conductor had to be there in the old USSR when the going got rough - like Mravinsky or Sanderling or Bychkov; or maybe he had to be very far away - like Karajan, who always, to my considerable surprise, did this symphony astoundingly well. For these isolated instances of "underkill" I should like to deduct about half a star, but as that is not possible and as my qualms are related mostly to personal taste, I'll let Petrenko have the full five. Everything else is just so infuriatingly (from a critic's point of view) well done in this recording.
The Naxos engineers, having hit the target spot on in Petrenko's recording of the Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances, again manage a sound that is both sumptuous and finely detailed with a nice sense of space around the orchestra, so full marks in that department. The unstopable second movement in particular comes across as the sonic equivalent of an onrushing train; put that in your stereo and smoke it!
After this minor disappointment, I sat up for the Scherzo, which Petrenko rips at a fast gallop, although he doesn't aim to make the music snarl in satiric or bitter fashion. Mravinsky and Karajan have little to fear here, yet in his own way Petrenko is hair-raising. The third movement Allegretto ushers us into the problematic second half of this work, risking serious anticlimax if the conductor cannot find a captivating mood for music that is banal on the surface. Petrenko starts off rather neutrally, but his refined phrasing and his ear for orchestral balance serve well as the movement unfolds. The Andante section that opens the finale is very sensitively done, with excellent work by the solo oboe, flute, and bassoon, who must carry everything by themselves against hushed strings in the background - this whole section is one of the most inspired in the Tenth.
Petrenko excelled in the gaunt final pages of the Eighth, and the finale's Allegro section, being very similar, brings out the best in him. He casts shadows evocatively, until the chirpy music opens a jack-in-the-box surprise - it alights on a ghostly carnival mood reminiscent of the haunted toy shop of the even more enigmatic Sym. 15. Petrenko knows how to handle this kind of music so that it never sounds trivialized but retains its strange merriment.
In the end, this isn't a towering recording if you know Karajan, Stokowski (in a Chicago Sym. commemorative box), Mravinsky, Mitropoulos or the darkest of dark horses, Frank Shipway, in a stunning reading with the Royal Phil. But the past is prologue, and on its own terms this is a very exciting performance, not nearly as revisionist as some of Petrenko's earlier Shostakovich yet undoubtedly impressive.
This is the best 10th I have ever heard (I have dozens in my collection). A Tenth for the 21st century, as Mravinsky, Ancerl and Karajan were for the 20th.
I'll merely point out the things that impressed me.
1. The recording is absolutely incredible! Every instrument's line perfectly audible, their balance outstanding. Kudos to the engineer.
2. What a superb orchestral the RLPO has turned out to be under Petrenko.
3. Listening to the Allegro (2nd movement) while driving; I almost had to stop the car (not the music!) The drive (no pun intended) and execution of this movement is just incredible (it is supposed to represent Stalin).
4. This recording earned accolades and prizes from Gramophone, and deservedly so.
5. If you want your Shostakovich raw and earthy, go to 20th-century versions. If you want it driven, angry, relentless, stay here.