Vasily Petrenko, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Recordings of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony tend to fall into two categories: the bad ones strike the listener as being a full quarter of an hour too long, the good ones as being only 5 to 10 minutes too long. Vasily Petrenko’s account with the Royal Liverpool PO is of the latter persuasion. Actually, the longeurs in this work proceed naturally from Shostakovich’s thematic material and the procedures through which he develops it. (You see, composers can’t just hit us with a smart melody right off the bat and then run with it. They feel guilty if they do.) Seriously, the Eleventh Symphony, dealing more thematically than program-wise with the events that touched off the 1905 Revolution in Russia, needs some space to develop its ideas and build its climaxes. Petrenko, one of the finest young conductors to come of Russia in recent years, gives it just the right amount of breathing room.
The touchstone is the opening movement, “The Palace Square.” The music incorporates several Russian folk songs, “The Convict,” “Listen,” and “O Tsar, Our Little Father.” The first two are combined and heard in the flutes above ominous triplets in the timpani, the latter in unison low woodwinds. All these are set against a low, glacial, almost static theme that is heard at the beginning and end of the movement and then again, very forcefully, in the second. It connotes more than simply the wintry weather; it is the cold insensitivity of autocrats everywhere (in this instance, Tsar Nicholas ll) to the needs of their people. It moves at glacial speed, too. Most of this opening movement is taken at a level that seldom rises above pianissimo and is given to a buildup of tensions that it is not the composer’s purpose to resolve just yet. If the conductor has kept his listener’s attention up to this point (and Petrenko has been quite careful to do just that), then he has passed the Eleventh’s most formidable challenge.
The succeeding movements are all taken attaca, without breaks, a procedure that stresses the overall trajectory of context-event-aftermath-conclusion. The second movement, “The Ninth of January,” vividly dramatizes the incident in which the Tsar’s guards ruthlessly murdered several hundred peaceful demonstrators in the square before the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg (an event we have seen portrayed in cinema a number of times, including David Lean’s 1962 classic Doctor Zhivago). It opens with subdued but restless activity in the strings, a sure sign that something is about to happen. The climax builds in intensity through several stages with a fugato in between and then we hear the pounding of the side drum as a prelude to the actual slaughter. At the height of the frenzy, the glacial theme from the first movement is blared forth in unison by the whole orchestra. The meaning could not be clearer. The rest of the movement is devoted to the fateful aftermath. First we hear an eerie, spectral recounting of the glacial theme, then the gradual building of anger, understated at first but inexorable, that culminated in the 1905 Revolution.
In Movement 3, “Eternal Memory,” Petrenko does a superior job marshaling the large forces that Shostakovich requires for this symphony, including triple woodwind, four horns, three each of trumpets and trombones, tuba, a full percussion battery, celesta and strings. These forces are used sparingly, but to maximum effect. The melody of the revolutionary song “We fell as martyrs” is used here in a striking context, first heard in the violas and then transferred to the other strings. The mood ranges from funereal to strongly assertive and defiant. The intensity subsides, the viola melody is heard as a distant recessional, and then Movement 4, “The Tocsin,” begins. The reference is to the alarm bell in the coda that summons us to be eternally vigilant against oppression and the soul-corroding influence of tyranny. The rapid build-up incorporates themes from the earlier movements, leading to an aggressive transformation of that glacial theme that we know all-too well by now. The movement adds other themes, eventually reaching its climax with a melody in the English horn (cor d’anglais) that places everything we have heard up until now in a fine perspective. Then the coda.
Throughout the performance, Vasily Petrenko has expertly guided the orchestra through a work characterized by slow, quiet build-ups to moments of anarchic frenzy. The dynamic range of this work is enormous. It has the emotional vocabulary of film music (an activity in which Shostakovich was also distinguished) and a uniquely Russian character that was probably what the composer meant when he described it as his most “Mussorgskyan” symphony. (Significantly, he had recently completed his magnificently re-orchestrated performance version of the older composer’s opera Boris Godunov when he began work on the Eleventh Symphony). At a running time of 57:37, Petrenko’s comparatively tauter performance comes in almost eleven minutes shorter than my treasured Delos recording by James DePreist and the Helsinki PO (68:17). And he keeps our rapt attention to the end. What more could we ask?