shostakovich symphonies 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. live, 2020 (8 & 9), 2021 (10), Philharmonie Berlin
Blu-ray disc includes concert videos and interview with Kirill Petrenko (with German, English and Japanese subtitles).
Audio options (Blu-ray disc): 2.0 PCM Stereo 24-bit / 96 kHz; 7.1.4. Dolby Atmos 24-bit / 48 kHz 
Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings BPHR220421 [2 CDs + Blu-ray: 138]

When Kirill Petrenko was announced as the successor to Sir Simon Rattle as Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, I must admit I was surprised. Other, more high-profile names had been widely mentioned as contenders for the post and Petrenko seemed to come rather from left field. However, since then I’ve heard several examples of this conductor’s work, including a couple of examples of his work in Munich:  an impressive traversal of Mahler’s Seventh with the Bayerisches Staatsorchester (review) and, even more tellingly, a wonderful account of Korngold’s Die tote Stadt (review). His recordings with the Berlin orchestra have also been noteworthy (review ~ review). In short, all the evidence I’ve heard suggests that the members of the orchestra knew what they were doing when they elected Petrenko as their chief. I may as well lay my cards on the table immediately and declare that this trio of Shostakovich symphonies is the finest example of Petrenko’s work that has so far come my way.

These recordings were available as digital downloads shortly before the physical discs came into circulation. As a result, my colleague Dan Morgan has already had his say on them. As usual, Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings have presented the release in a lavish way and purchasers of the discs get the performances on audio CDs – and a code to download high-resolution audio files – and also a Blu-ray disc containing videos of the live performances of all three symphonies. Because Dan Morgan was reviewing the download version, he didn’t have access to the visual aspect of this release and so I’ve deliberately focused primarily, though far from exclusively, on the concert videos in appraising these performances in the hope that our reviews will complement each other.

It’s worth mentioning the circumstances under which these performances were given because these reflect the changing Covid-related restrictions in force in Germany at the time. It’s interesting to note, though, that apparently the restrictions didn’t evolve on a linear basis; rather, they changed as the official perception of the Covid threat altered. The earliest performance was that of the Ninth symphony. This was given on 31 October 2020 to a less-than-full house and there’s a degree of social distancing – that ghastly phrase – in the seating of the woodwind and brass sections. I presume the restrictions were tightened soon afterwards because when the Eighth was performed on 13 November 2020 no audience was present. The Tenth was given nearly a year later, on 29 October 2021, by which time life had returned to something approaching normal: a full house was present but all the members of the public who are visible are wearing face masks and, slightly oddly, Petrenko is wearing one when he comes onto the platform but discards it immediately after taking his bow.

Purchasers of the physical set can also view a 22-minute interview with Petrenko in which he talks about each of the symphonies (I’m not sure if the audio of this is included with the download files). His comments, which I viewed only after completing much of my listening to the performances, are interesting and go beyond his short essay in the booklet.

Speaking of the Eighth symphony, Petrenko states that this symphony has much in common with Mahler and that in this work Shostakovich “achieved the same level of mastery as Mahler”. In this performance the huge first movement opens with a mighty call to attention from the strings and unfolds thereafter in a tense, highly concentrated fashion. Watching Petrenko conduct, he eschews distracting flamboyant gestures yet his level of engagement with the music is never in doubt. The orchestral playing is absolutely superb and it’s evident that this group of players had no need of the stimulating presence of an audience in order to achieve a high level of intensity. The recorded sound does full justice to the huge dynamic range of the orchestra, from the drained, hushed sounds of the strings early on to the fearsome power of the full ensemble at climaxes. When the movement ends, Petrenko maintains a long pause before commencing the second movement; this is welcome since we all need to catch our breath after such an emotionally draining performance.

Petrenko rejects the proposition that the Eighth has two scherzos; rather, he describes the second movement as “a satirised march of allegiance”. In the third movement the Berlin strings play with great power and weight while the woodwind shrieks cut through fiercely. In the middle section the trumpet solo is delivered with brilliance and swagger.  The immense, implacable climax tips us over the edge of the abyss at the start of the Largo. What follows is music distinguished by a glacial chill; here, the expert control of all the players ensures that this desolate music makes its full impact. The last movement is ambiguous; on the surface, it is lighter in tone than anything we’ve heard previously in the symphony, but is all as it seems? Petrenko says that he detects some hope in the music, but you sense that it’s a fragile hope – that’s how it comes across in this performance – and then the quiet ending is, to put it mildly, enigmatic. Since no audience is present there’s no applause at the end and somehow that feels right; applause almost seems an impertinence after hearing such a shattering symphony. Petrenko leads a magnificent performance which I believe gets right under the skin of the work and lays bare the profound emotions to which Shostakovich gives voice in this score.

In the filmed interview, Kirill Petrenko says of the Ninth that he feels it is “a symphony in which one marches backwards”. Unfortunately, he doesn’t elaborate on the meaning of that comment, which is a pity. I think that what he is referencing is the fact that Shostakovich did not produce the big, positive victory statement which the Soviet authorities undoubtedly expected. What they got instead was a symphony which is “one big grimace. With its grotesque, sarcastic gaiety, Shostakovich was thumbing his nose at the system”.

Petrenko leads a splendid performance of this subversive symphony. The first movement is crisp, sprightly and nimble; as you’d expect, the Berlin Philharmonic articulate the music with terrific precision. The movement fairly fizzes in this performance and the sardonic nature of Shostakovich’s music is acutely realised under Petrenko’s direction. The Presto third movement similarly benefits from the point-of-a-needle precision that the Berliners bring to the proceedings. Petrenko takes the music at a tremendous lick. Either side of the Presto come the two slow movements. The second movement, marked Moderato, may be smaller in scale than many of the composer’s symphonic slow movements – here, it plays for 7:20 – but it’s no less deeply felt. The peerless playing of the Berlin Philharmonic emphasises the emotional depth of the music. The fourth movement is a Largo. The rhetorical passages for the heavy brass are imposing and intimidating. In between them come the pleading bassoon solos which are here delivered with great eloquence. The bassoonist sounds like a frightened lone voice and that impression of a lone voice is heightened because the accompanying strings play so softly that their sound is hard to discern, even when listening through headphones. In the finale Petrenko takes note of the fact that the marking is Allegretto and adopts a well-judged tempo which has just the right degree of steadiness. By so doing, he emphasises that this movement, though extrovert on the surface, is definitely not a merry conclusion. Even in the helter-skelter coda any notion of happiness that the war had ended in victory is skin deep: as Petrenko commented in the interview, the composer clearly felt there were no victors in the war that had just ended.

The Tenth is one of Shostakovich’s greatest achievements. Petrenko says during the filmed interview that in this score he senses an “inner will…[a] strength of personality, the desire to remain strong in the face of outward adversity”. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the long, brooding and profound first movement. I think Petrenko has the full measure of this granite-like musical structure. He builds the movement patiently and with a clear sense of where the music is going. In realising his vision of the music, he’s supported by superb orchestral playing and though it’s invidious to single out an individual in the midst of such excellence, I must give a special mention to the principal clarinettist who plays the haunting solos with such finesse and imagination. The extended climax of the movement is projected with immense power but it’s the many stretches of quiet music that really demonstrate the stellar quality of this orchestra. 

The short, ferocious second movement is delivered incisively; the playing has all the punch and weight that the music needs. The third movement is marked Allegretto and indeed, it’s not quite a slow movement as such. It is, nonetheless, a movement of great stature. The present performance is as fine as any I’ve heard and the highly nuanced solo contributions of Stefan Dohr, the principal horn, are especially noteworthy. There’s more superb solo work to admire from several of the principals in the Andante introduction to the finale. Once the main Allegro is launched the performance is highly spirited. For once, perhaps, the extrovert note that Shostakovich struck can be taken at face value; Kirill Petrenko suggests that, briefly, the composer allowed himself to believe that the death of Stalin might indeed lead to a less oppressive future.

This set contains three magnificent Shostakovich performances. In the documentation Petrenko references the difficult circumstances, occasioned by the pandemic, under which these concerts were given and he tells us that “I found a closer connection with Shostakovich’s music than ever before”. I don’t think that there can be any doubt that he’s right on top of these scores, each one of which he conducts with complete understanding. The members of the Berlin Philharmonic respond superbly to his leadership: both individually and collectively, their playing throughout this set is peerless. I have a distinct sense that Kirill Petrenko is very much his own man and that he wouldn’t dream of conducting a complete cycle of any composer’s music just for the sake of completeness. I rather doubt, therefore, that we will find him recording the complete symphonies of Shostakovich. That said, on the evidence of what we see and hear in this set I would love to experience him in the Fourth, Thirteenth and Fifteenth symphonies; I think he’d do all three very well indeed.

Releases from Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings are premium products and this set is no exception. However, with this label you always get what you pay for, not just in terms of performance quality – which is top-drawer as usual – but in terms of presentation. The Blu-ray disc offers videos of all three performances. The camera work is excellent; the pictures are crystal clear and the video direction is expertly managed. I don’t have equipment on which to play Dolby Atmos but I got first-class results when using the 2.0 PCM stereo option through my television. I also sampled the audio channel of the Blu-ray disc through my hi-fi system and the results were excellent. But don’t overlook the “humble” CDs; these discs also gave terrific audio results. In summary, through whatever medium you choose to see/hear these performances, the technology will give you great results. It only remains to say that the documentation accompanying these discs is at the label’s usual high-quality level.  

John Quinn

Previous review: Dan Morgan (March 2023 – Recording of the Month)

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