Wednesday, April 16, 2014

First Listen: Petrenko's Shostakovich Symphony # 14

I have loved the enigmatic and moving Shostakovich 14th Symphony since I first heard the RCA Ormandy, Curtin/Estes, Philadelphia recording on vinyl back in the 70's as a classical music crazed teenager. I frankly have heard it so many times, words and musical passages are imprinted on my mind. Whether you wish to think of it as a symphony or a song cycle a la “Das Lied von der Erde” matters little. It is really, if you look at it all closely, Shostakovich's most intimate and emotional masterpiece.

Vasily Petrenko began his Royal Liverpool cycle on Naxos in 2009 with an excellent 11th Symphony. It seems only the incredible and under-performed “Babi Yar” 13th is left after the release of the 14th this month (April 2014). Most have been quite good, challenging the highly regarded Kondrashin and Barshai recordings. Naxos' bargain price is a plus, since the Kondrashin is hard to find (and the complete cycle is now priced in the stratosphere) and Barshai is most easily available in a complete cycle not individually.

So what is my first impression of the sometimes chilling, sometimes nostalgic and often neurotic 14th? First and foremost, the all-important vocal soloists, Gal James, Soprano and Alexander Vinogradov, bass, are usually in good form. Only hiccup (pun intended) is James' unconvincing “Kha, kha, kha, kha, kha. I ya khokhochu” sobs in “Madam, posmotrite!” Vinogradov gives us an overall powerful performance, with a most expressively eloquent “O Delvig, Delvig”. The important and colorful percussion is uniformly excellent throughout.

The weak points are the sometimes tentative, weak Liverpool strings, especially noted at the very beginning of the symphony and in the last climactic death rattle at the end. They redeem themselves with a gut wrenching col legno episode in “At the Santé Prison” movement, the abandoned prisoner pacing in his gloomy has rarely been so realistically portrayed. The "Lorelei" episode is exciting, but a touch frenetic. 

Petrenko gives us a well paced performance, around 50 minutes, leading to a rather skimpy disc. But really, what else could accompany a work like this? Sound, played through my computer speakers via the Naxos Music Library, seems to be good. Finally, it appears the usual fine, informative performance notes are included with this recording, another plus of the Petrenko cycle.

Overall, an excellent performance but I still can not live without the Barshai led performances with Vishnevskaya/Reshetin or with Simoni/Vaneev in the Cologne recording. Barshai was there at the beginning and has the music in his veins. The Curtin/Estes Ormandy is a sentimental favorite, with some of the most impressively ghoulish cover art ever devised. Avoid Bernstein's and the Haitink sung (in a version sanctioned by the composer) in the original languages... it just doesn't sound right.

Shostakovich Symphony # 14 (1969)

Gal James, Soprano, Alexander Vinogradov Bass
Vasily Petrenko Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

Naxos 8.573132

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