Shostakovich closed out his first half dozen symphonies with a masterpiece, but rounded off the next half dozen with a work even he admitted was less than inspiring. The latter piece was written to satisfy the Communist party bosses, and they greeted it most favorably. The Twelfth Symphony is dedicated to Lenin and, cast in four connected movements with subtitles, depicts key events of the Bolshevik Revolution. Shostakovich hated to produce such scores and never quite put his heart into them, but he had just become a member of the party and was fully aware of what was expected of him. One critic who was partisan to Shostakovich once described such efforts as "good bad music," and that's an excellent way to view the Twelfth Symphony: thematically and rhythmically, it's attractive, but harmonies are all too bland and while the work holds together structurally, it lacks depth and often comes across as slickly scored film music.
Its expressive language and character are much the opposite of the Sixth's. Here is a work with a dark first movement lasting nearly twenty minutes and comprising almost two-thirds of the symphony's entire length. Marked Largo, the opening movement is full of tension and tragedy, while the remaining two panels, marked Allegro and Presto respectively, are mostly joyous and together last about thirteen minutes. Vasily Petrenko turns in splendid readings of this disparate pair of symphonies, deftly capturing both the profound Shostakovich and the partyline Shostakovich. His phrasing is deftly shaped, his tempos well chosen in their moderate to slightly brisk pacing, and his pointing up of meaningful detail is masterly and subtle. These two performances contain spirited and accurate playing by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra that can probably challenge all, or mostly all, of the competition.
To give a brief run-down of other recordings… In 1961 Yevgeny Mravinsky (with his Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, now the St. Petersburg Philharmonic) became the first conductor to record the Twelfth. He also turned in a splendid and rather briskly-paced live performance of the Sixth on a 1972 Melodiya LP. I obtained both recordings ages ago and found them eminently worthwhile efforts. The Sixth has a raw but electric feel and the Twelfth is fully convincing. I have since acquired a number of other recordings of these two works. Temirkanov on RCA has a very good Sixth and Kondrashin, on Melodiya and other labels, was also quite compelling, though his first movement is nearly seven minutes quicker than Petrenko's and two minutes faster than the already brisk Mravinsky. Among more recent recordings of the Twelfth, Järvi on DG is quite good. Mravinsky is probably the best among the competition in both symphonies, but Petrenko challenges him and the result is pretty much a draw: I'll give Mravinsky a very slight edge in the Sixth, but Petrenko is marginally preferable in the Twelfth.
In sum, this new entry by Petrenko maintains the high standards set in the other recordings in his Shostakovich symphony cycle – a cycle, by the way, that critics have afforded much acclaim. The sound Naxos provides is vivid and powerful and the notes informative. Highly recommended.
Copyright © 2011, Robert Cummings