An introduction to Shostakovich's Symphony No. 15

Vasily Petrenko on the intricacies of Shostakovich's final symphony

Published: November 7, 2019 at 9:06 am

Symphony No. 15 Op. 141 (1971)

Premiered: Moscow 1972

Shostakovich wrote his final symphony while planning an opera on Chekhov’s ‘The Black Monk’, which concerns a man who surrenders to delusions of grandeur. Was this a memorial to the hubristic delusions of the Soviet Empire? Though it evokes a childhood world, it’s a nursery twitching with sinister puppets.


VASILY PETRENKO: ‘The final symphony is so fascinating, so controversial. I’ve known musicologists who were close to him in his last years, and say he was actually very optimistic. He’d gone through a great fear of death and come out the other side. Most of the symphony was dreamed up in hospital, and written down at home. It’s a little like Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony, about childhood; he said it was a “toy shop”, but what a macabre one!

We hear hospital equipment, electric shock treatment, vulgarity and satire; he brings in serialism, a vast array of quotations – everything from Rossini’s William Tell to Mahler’s Fourth Symphony – which come across like the crazy voices in your head when you are delirious.

And then comes the music from Götterdammerung: in Russian the title is translated as “Death of the Gods”, not “Twilight of the Gods”, and it could also be translated as “Condemnation of the Gods”. What did he mean? He left us no clues, but wrote to his friend Isaak Glikman: “I don’t myself quite know why the quotations are there, but I could not, could not, not include them.”

‘I feel he is recording a half-conscious state. The web of quotes from his own pieces is complex; they are reversed and converted, and he keeps coming back to his Symphony No. 4. Near the end we sense the world rippling and dissolving – there’s an understanding that it’s time to go. In the twitching ending are we hearing the death of all illusions?’

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.’


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