Dmitri Shostakovich Symphonies 5 & 9 (feat. conductor: Vasily Petrenko; feat. orchestra: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic) Review

Released 2009.  

BBC Review

Delivers a focussed and individual performance that doesn’t tow the same old line.

Andrew Mellor 2009

This is a significant test for Vasily Petrenko and his resurgent Liverpool Phil. Their cycle of Shostakovich symphonies launched impressively in May with the cannily chosen Eleventh. Now they offer the popular, ever-recorded and enigmatic Fifth with the awry and elusive Ninth. It’s the same coupling Valery Gergiev chose when his cycle with the Mariinsky orchestra was issued on CD. No pressure, then.

Popular it may be, but the Fifth symphony is also shrouded in interpretative argument like no other. Petrenko’s tempos – slowly wading and fearfully scurrying – suggest he subscribes to the ‘suppression’ theory: that the symphony’s jubilance is enforced, reflecting the emotional tempering of the terrified people under Stalin. As Petrenko’s third and fourth movements build, therefore, they stagger into their climaxes only to be forced upright by insistent percussion and machined-out sheets of unison strings.

Other recorded Fifths have more drama in these climax points; with Masur and the London Philharmonic the rallentandos are more pronounced and you really do feel the music collapsing into its pivots. Petrenko prefers to tee them up with sparse, anaemic textures that create a feeling of pale exhaustion. When those climax points arrive, it’s not the chutzpah of the key-change that hits you as much as the hopelessness of it all.

The orchestra plays with the increased quality we’ve become used to at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall in the last couple of years and Petrenko has preserved its lithe corporate sound and light, silvery string tone. The performances of both symphonies are tidy enough, particularly from the soloists. And that’s precisely why the shorter Ninth underwhelms. You can sense the cheeky glances of Haydn and Prokofiev in Shostakovich’s writing, but not in the orchestra’s playing. Minimal vibrato and stark instrumental palettes might bring a sinister edge to the Fifth, but here they suck colour from a piece which should be more fun.

The Ninth you can get better elsewhere. The Fifth you can get different elsewhere; less unsettling, more straightforwardly enjoyable, perhaps. But for delivering a focussed and individual performance of the latter piece that doesn’t tow the same old line, Petrenko and the Phil do their great relationship some justice.

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