No. 11 evokes the first uprising of 1905, when peasants stormed the Tsar’s Palace. Saturated with popular and revolutionary songs, it has been described as wordless one-act opera, and won Shostakovich a Lenin Prize in 1958.
VASILY PETRENKO: ‘Shostakovich’s own grandfather took part in the 1905 uprising – he was one of the Winter Palace rebels. He survived and was involved in other events.
He was a real revolutionary, a hero to the composer. It’s not certain exactly what happened that day on 9 January 1905. Some say the tragedy could have been avoided if events had taken a slightly different turn. The people asked for the Tsar to open his food stores as they were starving. The intention at the beginning was to have a dialogue. Shostakovich, I think, was asking, “what if?”
‘One of the first pieces by Shostakovich I performed was the Ten Choruses on texts by Revolutionary Poets, which I sang as a chorister. So I have a voice in my head reciting the events when I hear this symphony. The use of so many popular songs makes it very meaningful to Russians.
It’s a brilliant setting: the feeling of chill he achieves at the start, the sense of apprehension, are remarkable. It’s been seen as a veiled response to the 1956 Hungarian uprising, but I’m not sure. I think he conceived it before he knew: remember, there would have been no truthful reporting at that time.’
Vasily Petrenko is, like Shostakovich, a son of Leningrad/St Petersburg, and grew up singing the composer’s songs in its Capella Boys Music School. In 1997 he won first prize in the Shostakovich Choral Conducting Competition and was made chief conductor of the St Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra, during which time he took on the principal conductorship of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.
On his arrival in the city in 2006, at just 30, he launched a project with Naxos to record all Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies. The series has drawn international acclaim and, as the final instalment is released, he looks back on his nine-year journey. ‘To work with an orchestra on one composer for so many years has meant we could build a style, an approach to his language,’ he says. ‘At first, it felt like an exhilarating challenge: there are huge demands. Now, we are of one mind.’
Petrenko, born a year after the composer’s death, grew up in the Soviet Union. A beneficiary of its uniquely rigorous teaching system, he witnessed its dissolution when he was 15, the re-writing of history books, and even the emergence of a nostalgia for that dark era. He’s in touch with those who remember Shostakovich, and the times through which he lived, but has experienced the Western view of this controversial figure.
‘When I conduct these symphonies in Russia, there’s still an unspoken understanding of the songs, the messages. We talk more about the composer’s personal life. When I conduct in the West, it’s important to give the historical context. There’s still so much we don’t know; the family destroyed many letters when Shostakovich died. The State would probably have requisitioned them anyway.’