Symphony No. 11 the Year 1905
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Charismatic young conductor Vasily Petrenko launches his Shostakovich Symphonies series with the Eleventh, a highly charged depiction of the 'Bloody Sunday' massacre of over two hundred peaceful demonstrators by Czarist soldiers outside the Winter Palace
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So here we go again. Bottom line is, I think this disc is possibly the very best of the three discs from Naxos. I like the other two just fine, for slightly different reasons; but this Shostakovich Eleventh Symphony brings it all together, reaching new sonic and musical heights. I also think this particular reading can stand comparison with the best of the available catalog and come off very high, if not in some minds and hearts and ears, the highest so far. I cannot quite recall a similarly auspicious young conductor debut in Shostakovich, since the unhappily aborted Phllips Universal label debut of the young Semyon Bychkov.
Maybe we can attribute some of this success to the conductor settling in, quite nicely as a significant musical team, with the band? Petrenko has been working with RLPO, since at least 2006. From all indications on this new disc, the conductor and the band are hand in glove, at least from the sound of it. Add in the composer's high stakes in this musical proceeding; and we get one of those Russian Troika configurations, wild, powerful, pulling us fiercely across the shining snow and ice of hard winter.
In Shostakovich' opus, this symphony is all about hard Russian winter. Or, to be more historically accurate, a famous massacre of the protesting low income and starving citizenry that took place outside the Czar's winter palace, in hard winter. (Nicholas II) The palace guards fired into a crowd who were gathered peacefully; killing in all somewhere over two hundred people. Thus, the composer's fiftieth birthday roughly coincided with national commemorations of the Julian calendar's January 9th, 1905. The existing Soviet state apparatus was also partly rehabilitating the composer politically - yet again - as a duly noted Russian Revolution Artist. So, for various contemporary reasons everybody yet again had a lot riding on what Shostakovich might or might not manage in his newest symphony.
Happily, to my ears, Petrenko and the RLPO get it all pretty much right in this reading.
The opening is a remarkable success. Petrenko and the RLPO Players combine an introductory, scene-setting cinematic narrative flow with a musically canny and flexible unfolding of the harmonic tensions implicit, predictive in those long opening melodies. Such an opening is as much as many good readings of this symphony can manage to offer us. Petrenko and the RLPO players, however, go even further. The grim, relentless tread of the rhythmic motive underpins and portends the gathering sounds of an impending tragedy without falling apart, too much or too little. Given what the composer does in the low end of the orchestra, the challenges of pacing, integrating, combining all the right touches with an unimpeded narrative or musical flow is at least as difficult as Sibelius' later symphonies from the fourth onwards. A very good performance can get away with managing one or two of these musical dimensions, enough to make considerable musical points, leaving us fairly happy we listened.
A great reading brings it all together, and the whole music just snaps vividly, fiercely into sharp focus. Folk songs, cinema, history, music - bringing us powerfully back to ourselves as humanity.
The second movement which spells out the deadly events, is also effectively paced and shaped. Here the difficult balance to be struck among the rhythmic motif, the cinematic narratives, and the ambivalently coded pure music of western symphonic music in the twentieth century is ringing, clear as a bell. The Allegro assault gathers in a dramatic or brilliant repeat of Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky Battle On The Ice; then sounds touches of lament as all fades into the melancholy yet knowing evocations of the third movement.
In that third movement, Shostakovich apparently wanted to connote not just memory, but eternal memory. One may either read that eternity bit as a piece of required Soviet revolutionary hype; the progress of the revolution was after all State Hyperbole - supposed to be the raising of all humanity - from domination to freedom, to progress, and to well-met feeling among all global brothers and sisters.
Or, one may recall the many-sided codes and contexts which make Shostakovich a sort of uniquely modern master, as if his pure music were more indebted to Artificial Musical Intelligence (better than our worst political selves?) than we ordinarily comprehend. Again, the problems of pacing this movement's music are akin to dilemmas about how to do Sibelius' fourth or later symphonies. Again, I hear Petrenko and RLPO getting it just about as right as anybody else on disc so far. Certainly, surpassing other big name conductors whose eleventh symphonies have left me partly impressed, partly disappointed. (Rostropovich, Pletnev, Haitink, Jansons, Ashkenazy, even the marvelous Oleg Caetani). Certainly, right up there with my personal fav shelf bench marks (Mravinsky, Ormandy, Cluytens, Stokowski, Barshai, Bychkov with Berlin).
The concluding fourth movement is all motion, vigor, and circular music on point cycling and re-cycling. Who is chasing whom? Who is mindlessly repeating what tragedy, what injustice? To my hearing, Petrenko manages to deepen the required surface gloss of Soviet revolutionary martial triumph with that coded emptiness of gesture and purposeless that tells us the revolution was not a rise, not the Great Leap forward it proclaimed itself so loudly to be. I also think I hear very nice passing touches of the great mass of ordinary citizens, just going about their daily business, anyway. Allusions to western polyphony, canon, waltz - a bigger and deeper human heritage that even the iron fists of dictatorship or global business cannot quite take away from us. I also hear touches of constantly passing risk and danger; as if Eisenhower were still with us, say, warning about the dangers of the military-industrial complex in western democracies.
Are those final massed alarms, a warning from the state and the secret service police to the cowering populace? Or, a coded warning to all the big bosses, from all those so long abused, murdered, and repressed, living or dead?
The last slow coda returns us to the Eternal Memory movement. Tender is the Great Vision of Peace, Equality. Unfinished, unrealized is the Wondrous Vision of a generous and capable humanity, all engaged productively, all living fulfilled in some real peace. Is this last business of the music, the sawmill buzz of bottomless greed? Bottomless domination? Or, the near-mystical Last Apocalypse of some impossible yet Just, irrevocable consequence finally crashing in? No doubt the party bosses at the world premiere heard it one way. How will we hear it?
A listener is left thinking - as in the best of the Yevgeny Mravinsky readings with Leningrad - just how marvelous, intelligent, and deeply human Shostakovich was as a world artist, not just as a famous Russian artist. This is the difference, say, between a reading of Tchaikovsky's sixth symphony that is replete with sad, compelling personal anguish or secret sexual-romantic tragedy; and a musical reading that reaches even deeper, into what Germans might call, Zeitgeist, Weltschmerz.
Very highly recommended. If the remainder of this proposed complete symphony cycle can keep up the commitment and the musical quality of this disc; we are in for one of the really great Shostakovich symphony sets so far captured in the catalog. Unfairly, this start raises the stakes very high, indeed. Yes, in some idealized vision I still wish we could have had a complete set from Mravinsky and Leningrad in very good stereo PCM sound, if not in super audio surround sound. But, lacking that wish, this is a serious start on reaching high in the complete symphonies. (Ah, Naxos: Super audio? Sometime?)
All of these things were exciting declarations and printed critical opinion from musical journals and newspapers were quick to lavish praise on the venture.
Several years later the series has developed and is now a major reference point for those interested in this composer. Petrenko is no shrinking violet and he has succeeded in creating a Russian drive and sound from his Liverpudlian orchestra that has remained constant throughout the series. Generally this is achieved by tempi that keep on the move, but not always. This symphony certainly has long passages of desolation that demand, and get, desolate playing where time seems to stand still. The symphony is very pictorial in its political message and Petrenko makes sure that the imaging is put over dramatically and strongly.
This performance is far more impactive than either Rostropovich or Haitink for example who fail to dig deep enough into the Russian psyche. Some of the best Russian recordings are unfortunately not of the highest 'fi' and that matters in such a large scale work as this. Years ago Stokowski recorded a very fine performance on Capitol which delivered musically, emotionally and also sonically. In reality though, it is unlikely, however, that it would now seem superior to this far newer disc.
In conclusion therefore, I would suggest that this disc now deserves to be the starting point for anyone interested in adding this symphony to their collection.
I have nine symphonies from Petrenko's cycle, the 1st & 3rd, the 2nd & 15th, the 5th & 9th, the 7th, the 8th and the 11th. The first I bought and listened to was the 11th. Starting there was probably a mistake, at least for me, at least in terms of being able to hear what special qualities Petrenko was bringing to this repertoire.
Long ago, back in 1996, I imprinted--hard, very hard--on a radically new reading of the 11th by Valery Polyansky. It seemed to me then and it seems to me now that Polyansky was the very first conductor to understand the greatness inherent in this music.
Others rushed through it like it was the 1812 Overture of the Revolution, not a true symphony but an often vulgar display of fireworks that outstays its welcome--lots of sound and fury, signifying little if anything beyond explosions and excitement. Even Shostakovich's great collaborators like Mravinsky, Kondrashin and Rozhdestvensky (who surely did manage to evoke real terror) were leaving a lot on the table.
Polyansky was the first to fully commit to not just the terror of the piece but the entirety of its tragedy and its range of emotions. There's no question that "The Year 1905" relates to specific historical events but its drama is universal. Simply put, Polyansky tells the story better than anyone. (Rostropovich's second version--the live recording with the LPO--comes close.)
In "The Palace Square: Adagio," listen to the way that Polyansky creates an almost unbearable sense of the calm before the storm, a foreboding sense of doom. You can cut the tension with a pie knife and serve it on a plate. Then play Petrenko.
In "The Ninth of January: Allegro," listen to the way that Polyansky orchestrates the massacre, with blood-curdling calculation and inevitability. It's as horrifying as watching the evening news. Then play Petrenko.
In "In Memoriam: Adagio," listen to the way that Polyansky mourns the fallen--with dignity and a terrible kind of beauty, gut-wrenching, grief-stricken, heart-broken. Then play Petenko.
In "The Tocsin: Allegro non troppo," listen to the way that Polyansky builds to the climax with its wild ringing release of bells--a repressed people's "Ode to Joy." Then play Petrenko.
Polyansky gets it right, moment by moment, beat by beat. This kind of storytelling--I don't know what else to call it--takes time and it takes patience. Polyansky's reading requires every second of its 73:57 running time. Petrenko accounts for all the notes in a compact 57:37. His is a sleek and muscled rendering of the symphony. It reminds me, more than a little, of watching a champion bodybuilder's practiced routine on stage. You can't help but marvel at it as sculpture in motion. Is this Shostakovich? Yes, no doubt about it. Is this great Shostakovich? Here I have to pause where others rush in.
I very much like the balanced advice that a friend of mine gave, although his first reactions to Petrenko are hugely more favorable than mine. He suggested that Petrenko should be approached with caution by newcomers looking for a first version, but that experienced listeners will find something original and surprising here. That strikes me as eminently sensible. I wouldn't be too terribly surprised if I warm to a number of Petrenko's readings eventually, but meanwhile they remind me of the Emerson's readings of Shostakovich's 15 string quartets: technical virtuosity, abundant intelligence, brilliant sound, but I very much miss the passion and intensity--the heart--that the Beethovens, the Borodins and the Fitzwilliams had brought to these same pieces.
One reviewer here who is quite vocal about his dislike of the 11th Symphony thinks Petrenko's version does a better job than others in covering up its fatal flaws. Look, I get that: if you don't care for this music in the first place, if you think it's a simple propaganda piece, sure, then it makes sense to race through the thing without wasting any time or any emotion on it.
On the other hand, if you're willing to entertain the notion that Shostakovich might actually have had something serious to say here--as serious and universal as, say, what Goya was saying in his great painting "The Third of May 1808"--then Petrenko's approach is likely to seem . . . well, bloodless--and bloodless is the one thing that this symphony, commemorating a government's massacre of its own people, simply cannot be.
To me, the Shostakovich 11th, premiered in 1957, is a suspiciously mawkish tribute to the innocent citizens mowed down by the Czar's Cossacks in the bitter cold of January, 1905. The music is programmatic and as easy to follow as a Hollywood soundtrack -- we witness historical tableuax from the first public gathering at dawn in Palace Square, St. Petersburg to the massacre, a period of mourning, and then the wild ringing of the tocsin that sounds the promise of a victorious future, i.e., the October Revolution of 1917. It's always uncomfortable when Shostakovich does his duty as a loyal Soviet artist-- a "people's composer" -- and it helps only somewhat that he later told interviewers that this work, although supposedly a paean to revolutionary glory, was actually a covert criticism of Moscow's brutal suppression of the Hungarian uprising of 1956.
However it's sliced, the Shostakovich 11th is problematic musically, needing a great deal of help to get beyond its rum-tum depiction of patriotic blood and tears. Petrenko succeeds through a combination of incisiveness and serious intent. He doesn't cheapen the movie music, and he looks past the propaganda value of the score to the human sacrifice that lies beyond, for both the victims of 1905 and the composer. I've noticed that post-Soviet Russian conductors like Gergiev seem eager to minimize the very qualities that saved Shostakovich's skin repeatedly -- the easy-listen tunes, the visceral bombast, the patriotic rhetoric. Petrenko falls into this trend, and I'm happy to say that on that account this is one of the least sleazy Shostakovich Elevenths I've ever heard; I believe in the conductor's attempt to find nobility in the music. I wouldn't rank it above Gergiev's recent account -- the two reach the same high standard, with Petrenko scoring on thrills at the close.