The tenth is arguably one of Shostakovich' finest works, continuously battling the fifth for the gold in the popular vote, and over the last fourty-odd years a multitude of first-class performances have found their way to the mediums of LP and later CD. It is a symphony that demonstrates both great depth of emotion and at the same time the expressivety of a marching brass band (in short, Shosta at his best), and, composed in the exuberant months following Stalin's death in March 1953, it occupies a pivotal position in the oevre of the composer (for more about the symphony per se, see also my review of Semyon Bychkov's exemplary recording for AVIE).
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!