Classic CD: Shostakovich Symphony 4

By William Dart

Shostakovich: Symphony 4 (Naxos)
Stars: 5/5
Verdict: Vasily Petrenko gives us gripping Shostakovich, primed for the age of Putin


CD cover: Shostakovich.
CD cover: Shostakovich.

Petrenko knows how to catch an atmosphere of grandeur turned sourWe were privileged to have Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko touring with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in 2011. Memories of his knife-edge account of Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony are still vivid - an interpretation captured when he recorded it two years later with the Royal Liverpool Symphony Orchestra.

Petrenko's excellent Shostakovich cycle nears its completion with a new CD of the Fourth Symphony.

Written in the mid-1930s, its composer withheld it until 1961 because of the turmoil his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk had caused in Stalinist circles.

His next symphonic excursion would be the grimly tuneful Fifth, his so-called "artist's creative response to justified criticism".

Emotionally, the Fourth is one of the most gripping of Shostakovich's 15 symphonies and Petrenko transforms its two outer movements, running at just under 30 minutes, into harrowing stands of resistance.

The baleful match of the Allegretto poco marcato veers into unpredictable terrain, with many episodes highlighting the RLSO's top-notch woodwind players, before the storms of a Presto are released.

Mahler is very much acknowledged here, and Petrenko knows how to catch an atmosphere of grandeur turned sour; towards the end of the first movement, there is something gentler but perhaps more sinister afoot when a solo violin recalls the disillusioned nostalgia of composer Kurt Weill.

As a student, I grew up hearing the barbed interlude of the middle movement mediated by the celebrated sheen of the Philadelphia Orchestra strings, under Eugene Ormandy.

Now the Liverpool violas opt for a leaner sound; seconds later, after a lopsided Landler for E flat clarinet, interjections from the violins come across as suppressed screams.

One remembers the Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky taking his Cleveland players to task for writing off a seemingly naive passage, underscored with castanets and woodblock, as nothing but pony-trot music.

No, he remonstrated, these persistent rhythms represented Stalin's prisoners communicating with one another by tapping the pipes that connected their cells.

Through this superlative recording, Petrenko reveals he is on the older Russian's wavelength. Surrender to the unswerving drive of the work's searing finale, and you realise that, in the age of Vladimir Putin, Russia's problems are not all over.

- NZ Herald

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