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Friday, June 1, 2012

Shostakovich, Symphony No. 2 "To October", Symphony No. 15, Petrenko, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra

Shostakovich wrote some 15 symphonies in his lifetime (1906-1975). Many of them rank among the very finest examples this past century produced. Not all of them, however. His Second Symphony, "To October" doesn't quite hang together, all things considered. But taken as a whole, the 15 symphonies are a remarkable body of work.

Conductor Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic have undertaken to record the entire cycle for Naxos. Judging from the volume I have been listening to, it will be a good effort.

As the header for today's entry makes clear I have been enjoying the coupling of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 2 with his final Symphony No 15 (Naxos 8.572708). If you are going to be doing the complete cycle it is probably wise to inter-leaf some of the minor works (No. 2) with the masterpieces, of which No. 15 certainly is one. That way the lesser work serves as a contrasting prelude to the more definitive example that follows.

It's not that No. 2 is in any way inferior as music. It doesn't quite hang together as a symphony. It is very brief, 18 minutes, with two movements acting as a kind of peremptory orchestral clearing of the throat to the third "To October" choral movement. This of course was a piece to commemorate the October Revolution, and in those days it was no doubt expedient to put great emphasis on the choral hurrah section.

The 15th Symphony is another matter altogether, combining majestic flights with grotesqueries and even a little buffoonery in the brief quotation of the Gallop from Rossini's "William Tell Overture," Wagnerian grandeur, a bit of storm and stress, the haunting quality of half-remembered peasant dances from long ago, and a deft interweaving of 20th century modernity with deliberate archaicism. It sprawls and unfolds with a symphonic narrative that is in many ways the culmination of a lifetime of exceptional symphonic development. Here was a man with only a year left to live, summing up his life in the symphony, his life in music.

One should linger over this one along with his 1st, 5th, 7th and the rest of the last symphonies to get a proper picture of his stature. Thankfully Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic give us a very respectable, focused and sonically impressive reading of both works. At the Naxos price it's quite irresistable. A nice slab of Shostakovich for you!

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