- 18 October, 2013
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Vasily Petrenko has been turning critics’ heads with his acclaimed cycle of Shostakovich’s fifteen symphonies, recorded with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Volume 9, the latest in the series, features the Fourth Symphony (Naxos 8.573188).
“Shostakovich’s music is very close to me,” Petrenko says. “We were born in the same city and both absorbed its culture, traditions and mentality. Whenever I conduct his symphonies, images of Leningrad appear very strongly in my imagination and I feel like I’m in my hometown!”
Petrenko also reflects on how the symphonies mirror the politically turbulent and artistically difficult times the composer had to cope with during the Soviet era. Six years separated the composition of his third (1930) and fourth (1936) symphonies; but 31 years separated their first performances, a riddle addressed by Petrenko’s first question.
During the years between writing those two symphonies, Shostakovich’s focus was on works for the theatre – music for film, ballet and opera. The latter had always enjoyed a high profile on Russia’s music scene and so it’s understandable that Shostakovich should have wanted to buff up his reputation with a solid contribution to the operatic repertoire. Prior to the 1917 Revolution, the tsarist rulers held both a financial and artistic grip on the genre, wanting it to reflect imperial power. Instead of improving that situation, the revolution merely shifted the grip from one form of autocracy to another.
The Bolshevik leadership wanted an operatic monopoly to create a veneer of artistic prestige for their regime, but it didn’t all go to plan. It’s in this context that Petrenko would like to have asked Shostakovich the following:
“Do you really think that if Stalin hadn’t attended Lady Macbeth, the ensuing drama wouldn’t have happened and the Fourth Symphony would have been premiered on time? And do you think your remaining symphonies would have been even better?”
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was Shostakovich’s second opera, premièred in 1934. It was very well received in nearly two hundred performances in several countries before Joseph Stalin attended a performance in 1936. He took an immediate dislike to its modernism, both in the music and the plot. Two days later, a devastating newspaper critique of the work appeared in Pravda, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece.
Petrenko’s question seeks to establish just how much this affected Shostakovich’s confidence. Despite making good progress on writing the Fourth Symphony and having a pledge from Otto Klemperer to perform the work the following season in South America, Shostakovich swept out of the first rehearsal, conducted by Fritz Stiedry, clutching the score and scuppering all plans for its première. Antagonism from the players regarding the last movement is said to have been one possible reason; a growing realisation that the authorities were sniffing round the work and were ready with the daggers is another. Petrenko’s question, however, seems ultimately destined to remain unanswered.
The answer to his second question, however, would be much easier to guess:
“If you were still alive today, would you be surprised at the progress Zenith has made? Did your Grossbuch predict it?”
Zenith was a football club in Leningrad; now it’s a football club in St Petersburg (same city, new name). It was up and running by the 1920s and subject to the political interferences of the day (what was good for the arts was, apparently, also good for sport). Loved in Leningrad and ardently supported by Shostakovich, the team took a while to raise its profile; several decades, in fact.
Fast forward to 2006 when Zenith reached the quarter final of the UEFA Cup; and to 2008 when they won the UEFA Super Cup trophy, defeating Manchester United 2-1. With these and other garlands to the team’s credit, Shostakovich would have no doubt been surprised and delighted in equal measure, duly recording the statistics in his Grossbuch, a ledger in which he stored results of routine matches and sporting factual rarities.
Petrenko is himself a long-time supporter of Zenith; as a result of his time spent in the city, he’s now also a follower of Liverpool FC. One wonders if talk of the symphonies would ever have got a look-in had the two men ever met.