When World War II broke out, Shostakovich was offered the chance to teach at a conservatoire in Tashkent, but insisted on remaining in Leningrad with his family, working as a fire officer, until they were finally evacuated. He took the draft score of the Seventh Symphony with him, completing the last movement in the war capital Kuibyshev, where it was premiered.
VASILY PETRENKO: ‘The people of Russia were caught between two evils: which would they prefer? Stalin was a murderer but gave them national identity; Nazism promised genocide. I feel here he was raging against all anti-human force. At the beginning we are dealing with some of the most beautiful music ever written, which is then systematically destroyed.
You can hear that senseless, mechanical force in the motoric drums, the chilling banality of the march. You can hear his experience, too, of being a fire warden on the roofs of St Petersburg.
He refused to leave for a long time yet he was still evacuated before the really horrible things happened, before people started eating each other. What he had witnessed was the amazing strength of the human spirit, in defending each other and their city.
‘He felt a responsibility to get as many musicians as possible back from the front line to play in the Leningrad performance. They were given food: that’s why there are so many extra brass, harps, woodwinds – he was literally saving lives.
And so the Symphony is a memorial to the people of Leningrad. The live broadcast was a powerful symbol of resilience, for the country, and for the Allies.’
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.’