Royal Liverpool Philharmonic/Petrenko – Schubert, Mahler & Shostakovich

Rosamunde – Overture
Symphony No 10 – Adagio [ed. Erwin Ratz]
Symphony No.8 in C minor, Op.65

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko

Reviewed by: Glyn Môn Hughes

Reviewed: 26 March, 2009
Venue: Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool

Vasily Petrenko. Photograph: Mark McNultyThere is no doubt that Shostakovich was living in troubled times when he wrote his gigantic Eighth Symphony. It reflects 1943, a grim time for the Soviet Union in the course of World War Two. But it also reflects the culmination of a period of artistic persecution for the composer. “Pravda” had attacked his work relentlessly and he was forced to channel his artistic endeavours into pleasing the overlords of the Communist Party rather than satisfying his own compositional and musical aspirations.

And so we have this work, written in an astonishing two months at the Composers’ Retreat that was on Collective Poultry Farm No.69. Yet this is no battery-chicken type of symphony-on-demand. It is a massive, profound and highly moving work – and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Vasily Petrenko amply captured that spirit.

Right from the powerful, almost menacing string argument at the outset – along with the almost frightening combination of drums and brass – this was a profound interpretation, getting to the very heart of the torture that the composer seemed to be feeling. While it was thought-provoking, it was also an emotional wrench. It seemed to conjure up those desolate black-and-white films of soldiers fighting a forlorn battle in a war in which nobody seemed to want to participate.

Is there any light relief? Yes, a little, in the second movement, though this is another big statement. Then there was the relentless, mechanical third movement and the shadowy fourth, in which demands were placed in the many able soloists in the RLPO. That reign of terror returned in the finale ending with a soulful whisper – ably assisted, sadly, by the bronchial Philharmonic audience which always seems to splutter at those magical moments.

Once can but surmise what Mahler’s Tenth Symphony might have been. Although we are familiar with Deryck Cooke’s ‘performing version’ of the symphony as a whole (and there are other completions), it was good to hear Erwin Ratz’s edition. Again, here, the veering between joyful exuberance and abject depression was stark and worked to the full by Petrenko.

The real moment of light relief came at the opening of the concert – a performance of the ‘Magic Harp’ overture that Schubert used for his incidental music to “Rosamunde”. Although it has a dramatic and stern opening, it turns into a frothy number with some delightfully playful pianissimos.

A demanding concert overall and one which showed the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic off to great effect as an orchestra increasingly comfortable with the heavy virtuoso demands placed upon it.

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