Begun as an oratorio and completed in hospital, No. 14 is Shostakovich’s own take on Musorgsky’s ‘Songs and Dances of Death’, which he had orchestrated in 1962. Written for soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, bass, strings and percussion, it consists of 11 settings by poets who died young, including Lorca and Apollinaire.
Overcoming his shyness at the premiere Shostakovich explained to the audience, ‘I want listeners to this symphony to realise that life is truly beautiful.’
VASILY PETRENKO: ‘For me, this is perhaps the composer’s greatest work. By the time he wrote it he’d had a heart attack, and was in a dark place. The piece is saying when we die, that’s it, there’s nothing more. This utter nihilism offended some (like Solzhenitsyn) because there was no Christian sense of redemption.
The only song which is different is ‘O Delvig’, about the poet who was shot by the police. This is a message about one’s gift as an artist: you must not waste it, you must use in a right and appropriate way. Human beings will always die, but Art will last forever. There’s hope, but not in the physical world.
You have to remember that by now the space race is over: they’ve conquered space and what did they find? To find paradise is now a metaphysical search. The end abruptly stops, it’s like an acceleration to the wall, a disappearance.’
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.’