Shostakovich: Nos 1 & 3 (First of May)

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 1 & 3 (First of May)
PERFORMER: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
CATALOGUE NO: 8.572396

Every young composer needs the sensitive skill of Vasily Petrenko to join the dots of fits-and-starts inspiration, and I’ve never been more convinced by the whole, rather than just the isolated gestures, of the teenage Shostakovich’s First Symphony. You hear more than ever how prophetic it is of things to come: Petrenko treads lightly for three quarters of the first movement, so that the two full flare-ups knock us for six – just as in the equivalent neo-classical-versus-sinister tension in the Ninth Symphony.
There’s true eloquence, not faux-Scriabinesque pathos, about the oboe solo and the hushed strings of the Lento, taking us from the elegies of the Fifth’s slow movement to the 15th’s skeletal funeral marches. And though I’m still unsure what Shostakovich meant by the manic-depressive lurches of the finale, its precipitations, dead zones and magnesium flares are superbly articulated by the Liverpudlians on vividly-recorded top form.
What’s to be done, though, with the Third Symphony? Gone are the avant-garde experiments of its predecessor; Shostakovich is surely trying to emulate the ‘C majorishness’ of Prokofiev’s ballet Le pas de’acier, but he doesn’t have the same melodic arsenal at his disposal. It’s all about mass and void, so Petrenko keeps the orchestra focused and the dynamics true. For the final chorus, though, you really need the likes of Kondrashin’s open-toned Soviet blasters, even if the RLPO’s companion chorus does its best. No, the First’s the thing – slightly better engineered, too – and well worth its bargain price. David Nice