shostakovich berliner

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Symphony No 8 in C minor, Op 65 (1943)
Symphony No 9 in E-flat major, Op 70 (1945)
Symphony No 10 in E minor, Op 93 (1953)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Kirill Petrenko
rec. 2020 (8 & 9), 2021 (10), Philharmonie Berlin
Reviewed as a 24/96 stereo download from Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings
Pdf booklet included
Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings BPHR220421 [2 CDs + Blu-ray: 138]

I was surprised to hear that Kirill Petrenko would succeed Sir Simon Rattle as chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2019. Then again, the Russian had guested with the orchestra on several occasions, starting in 2006, and contributed to a couple of their own-label boxes. I selected two of these recordings and sat down to listen. First up, a Mahler 6 from 2020, recorded as part of a multi-conductor collection devoted to the composer’s ten symphonies. It’s a broader reading than most – less fraught, too – and that brings out a wealth of colour and fine detail. Not the usual big-hitting Six, but worth a listen nonetheless. Next, an urgent, rather edgy Beethoven 9, which feels like a marker of some kind; a warning, perhaps, that this conductor will have no truck with tradition.

All of which leaves me wondering how Petrenko’s Shostakovich might go. One thing’s certain, though, and that’s the formidable competition he faces in these three great symphonies. Take No 8, for example. Yevgeny Mravinsky’s 1982 recording, with the Leningrad PO at their blistering best, has been at the top of my personal pantheon for decades now. (The pitch problem on the original Philips release was resolved on the Alto reissue.) Not far behind is Mark Wigglesworth’s Eighth, recorded with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra as part of his distinguished Shostakovich set (BIS). His NRPO Ninth is also first-rate, as is the one Bernard Haitink and the LPO recorded for Decca in 1980. Top-tier Tenths include Wigglesworth’s with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (BIS), Yevgeny Svetlanov’s tense 1968 BBC Prom (ICA Classics), and the two performances that Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker recorded for Deutsche Grammophon in 1966 and 1981. I’ve long since ceased to be a Karafan, but even I have to admit these Shostakovich recordings are among the very best things he ever did. Just as impressive, if not more so, is his Moscow concert, taped on 29 May 1969. Melodiya’s recording of that event is long overdue for remastering and reissue.

Minutes into Petrenko’s Eighth and any doubts I may have harboured about his credentials in this repertoire were swept away. He has a Mravinsky-like grip on the music, not to mention a seemingly intuitive grasp of shape and structure. And, thanks to Uli Stielau’s holographic recording, every tic and timbre is effortlessly revealed, the sense of presence simply astonishing. (Then again, Petrenko’s ability to ‘open up’ a score – as in his Mahler Sixth – has a role to play here.) In the Adagio – Allegro non troppo, the Berlin strings are at once extended and eloquent, their sense of conviction and purpose unwavering. As for the Allegretto, it’s deftly done, rhythms and dynamics superbly managed. Indeed, I was beginning to realise that one of this conductor’s key talents is that he gets to the nub of a given score without ever resorting to artifice or exaggeration. For me, the highlight of Mravinsky’s Eighth is the transported trumpet playing in the Allegro non troppo. If anything, Petrenko’s soloist is even finer, the snare drum as crisp and clear as one could wish. Again, I was struck by how natural Petrenko makes it all sound, the huge climax in the Largo all the more effective for being so implacably delivered, the sound of the tam-tam allowed to decay in the most thrilling fashion. The C-major finale is persuasively done, Petrenko one of the few conductors to hint at the private persona behind the composer’s public face. It’s quite a gift, and one that puts me in mind of Kurt Sanderling’s similarly revealing performance of the Fifth Symphony (Berlin Classics). That and this all-conquering Eighth are a must-hear for all DSCH devotees.

If the authorities had expected Shostakovich’s Ninth to emulate Beethoven’s – long, lofty and, perhaps, with an inspiring chorus at the end – they would have been bitterly disappointed by the comparatively short, rather quirky piece that resulted. Haitink and the LPO deliver a bright, bouncy Allegro that feels more than a little subversive. Petrenko has the advantage of Stielau’s ‘hear-through’ recording, which uncovers an extraordinary amount of nuance and detail. That’s especially so in the lovely, chamber-like Moderato, with its sweet, unfettered upper strings, liquid winds and soft, plucked basses. Moving on, the skirl and skitter of the Presto, so well calibrated, is a joy to hear. The combination of tuba and trombones in the Largo, not to mention the gorgeous bassoon solos, seems so real they put the listener firmly in one of the hall’s very best seats. As for the finale, it has plenty of snap, the Berliner’s easeful virtuosity a constant source of wonder. Musically and sonically, this is by far the most satisfying Shostakovich Ninth I know. Indeed, if the Tenth is as good as this – and I see no reason why it shouldn’t be – then Petrenko will have scored a hat-trick.

At the end of this listening session, I came to realise this conductor’s Shostakovich never sounds remotely generic; instead, each of the symphonies presented here retains its unique signature, its own blend of strength and character. In short, there’s no sense of interpretation as such, the music simply allowed to speak for itself. (Again, I’m reminded of that Sanderling Fifth, whose openness reveals more about the piece and its composer than any other version I can think of.) The BP played very well in all three recordings of Karajan’s Op 93 – no surprises there – but, if anything, they bring a poise and quiet passion to this new recording that surpasses them all. In the Moderato, the upper strings are as refined as ever, the darkly ruminative basses superbly rendered. (René Möller’s recording is every bit as immersive as those of Uli Stielau’s in Nos. 8 & 9.) Even more impressive is how easily Petrenko unpacks this opener, discovering so much in the process. What follows is a wonderfully propulsive Allegro that had me reaching for the repeat button at the end. Really, Shostakovich playing doesn’t come any better than this. There’s much to delight the ear in the beautifully sprung Allegretto, phrasing so natural, articulation so clean and confident. I’ve long thought of the Tenth as a culminating work, a distillation of all that’s gone before; this impression is amply reinforced by Petrenko’s quiet, unfussy way with the finale. No pushing, no nudging, just the way Shostakovich intended it to be heard. I certainly wouldn’t part with Svetlanov, Wigglesworth or Karajan in this extraordinary piece, but this newcomer beats them all.

Bravo, bravo, and thrice bravo; Kirill Petrenko’s Shostakovich sweeps the board.

Dan Morgan

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