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Symphonies Nos 5 & 9

4.5 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews

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Audio CD, October 27, 2009
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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

Following their electrifying account of Shostakovich' Eleventh Symphony , Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra explore the profound ambivalences of the composer' most performed symphony, the Fifth, written in 1937 at a time


The Russian revolution in Liverpool continues. There's a cliché for you, but there's nothing remotely hackneyed about Vasily Petrenko's Shostakovich. Here again is that string-led Soviet sound that he found in his recent Tchaikovsky disc and drama found through lyricism. -- Gramophone Editor's Choice , December 2009

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Product Details

  • Audio CD (October 27, 2009)
  • Number of Discs: 1
  • Label: Naxos
  • ASIN: B002N5KEF6
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #145,223 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

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Top Customer Reviews

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I recently purchased, at an absurdly low price, Vasily Petrenko's searing reading of the Shostakovich Eighth on Naxos. The interpretation is gripping, the orchestral playing superlative and the recorded sound exemplary. It goes right to the top of my recordings of that work. Consequently, I couldn't wait to hear Petrenko's take on the Fifth in the same series.

I was in for a major disappointment. Virtually everything that was so right about the Eighth is wrong with the Fifth. To say that the tempo choices are eccentric would be an understatement. I am not going to join the great debate among musicologists and conductors about the proper tempi in the fourth movement other than to say that Petrenko slows the tempo to a crawl much earlier than in any other performance I have heard, and the effect is disconcerting.

Where the choice of abnormally slow tempi is most annoying is in the first movement. It is so slow at one point early on that a beautiful long melodic line completely loses its definition. The opening motif in the strings is curiously devoid of drama, nor does any dramatic tension develop as the movement progresses. In this first movement, Shostakovich masterfully manipulates the simplest thematic material into a tight, complex and convincing structure filled with tension, contrast and surprises. Petrenko renders the whole thing limp and shapeless. An unusually wide dynamic range doesn't help. This first movement is practically fool proof in its ability to engage the listener from beginning to end, but somehow Petrenko manages to make it boring. It doesn't get much better. The scherzo lacks bite, and the largo is devoid of all pathos or passion. If nothing else, the finale is "interesting"--judge it for yourself.
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At present I have nineteen different versions of the Shostakovich fifth in my classical collection, ranging from vintage versions by Mravinsky, Kondrashin and Ancerl to more modern ones by conductors like Gergiev, Ashkenazy and Temirkanov. Still I consider Petrenko's recording to be among the very finest beasts in my herd due to a well-thought-through aproach and a very consistent and in every detail finely crafted reading.

Many years ago I had the good fortune to be present at an unforgetable rehersal of the symphony our National Radio Orchestra had with the no longer active (but still with us at the tender age of 97!) German conductor Kurt Sanderling, who was in the audience at its first performance back in 1937, and who knew the conditions of Stalin's Russia first hand having fled there from Nazi Germany the year before. His many instructions to the orchestra regarding the numerous instances of the music tapping directly into the oppressive every-day life during the purges of the mid-thirties was a wonderful insight into this awsome piece of music, and with so many of those hints present in Petrenko's version, I all but feel that he must have been there on that occasion as well. Especially the many life-like details in the Party day persiflage of the second movement are done to perfection, and the stumbling, pleading notes of the little violin solo - according to Sanderling the musical likeness of a little girl attempting to recite a short thank-you speech to Stalin while handing over a bouquet of flowers - is moving in the extreme. The Largo movement is rather slow (too slow, I'm sure many would say - but then again the tempo is Largo, so how could it be?!
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The first volume in this ongoing series from Naxos was a quality reading of the eleventh symphony from these same forces. New conductor Vassily Petrenko has to publish in the long shadows cast by Naxos' former distinguished Shostakovich conductor, Ladislav Slovak. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO) has an easier comparison task, because the earlier Naxos series used the Slovak Radio band. RLPO is a step up, though the Slovak RSO did play towards the angels of their better musical natures in the old Shostakovich cycle.

As it happens, I received this second volume right after watching Michael Tilson Thomas and San Francisco do the Shostakovich fifth in their new video-music series, Keeping Score. That media piece lays out a compelling vision of what the music captures, with lots of intermittent flash back contextualizing from Soviet history in general, and from the composer's life and work in particular. The MTT keys to this symphony are demonstrated to be quite apt. With that juxtaposition, it was a bit of shift to next spin the new Petrenko reading of the famous fifth symphony.

MTT makes much of the ta-da figure that many different composers have used to announce heroic motifs and attitudes in their music across different music history periods. Many readings open with the instant recognition of a forceful interval and oscillation in this famous string flourish. Petrenko?

Well, he down plays the flourish, alternatively, in favor of clear line, and perhaps already suggesting that - as we all know from the composer's life and the Stalinist era - not all is well. Given such touches of clarity and simultaneous unease, this opening call or gesture is less heroic and more palpably questioning? An association perhaps would be the "Muss es sein" motif.
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