Stunning ‘Babi Yar’ Caps Shostakovich Cycle By Petrenko

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A memorial to the victims of the Nazi massacre at Babi Yar in Kiev, Ukraine.  (Photo by Richard L. Baum)
A memorial to the victims of the Nazi massacre at Babi Yar — subject of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 — in Ukraine.
(Photo by Richard L. Baum)

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 13 (“Babi Yar”). Alexander Vinogradov (bass), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, Huddersfield Choral Society, Vasily Petrenko (conductor). Naxos 8.573218

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW — Once a rarity on the shelves — and not a particularly valued rarity at the time — complete recordings of Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies now number well over a dozen as the composer’s posthumous reputation continues to soar. One of the best new cycles, that of young conductor Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, has just reached its conclusion with a tremendously powerful rendering of the choral Symphony No. 13.

Shostakovich Symphony 13 350
Petrenko has the Liverpool Philharmonic playing beyond itself.

This is the piece that got Shostakovich in hot water again with the Soviet authorities after the Khrushchev “thaw” relieved the oppressive pressure of the Stalin years for a while.  The problem wasn’t so much the music as it was the text of the first movement, in which Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar” connected the Nazi massacre of Jews in Ukraine to the long, ongoing history of anti-Semitism in Russia itself. The second performance of the piece — which took place two days after the 1962 world premiere — was recorded (and recently reissued on Praga).  You can feel the rage steaming from the bass soloist, Vitaly Gromadsky, and conductor Kirill Kondrashin (who later defected from the Soviet Union).

Bass Alexander Vinogradov
Bass Alexander Vinogradov sings of the pogrom in Bialystok.

Actually, it isn’t all that difficult to pull the “Babi Yar” symphony off; the musical language is basic and earthy, it almost plays itself. But Petrenko, who was born a year after Shostakovich’s death, goes further than that. He feels the rage of those who lived through that era, too, and he has some ideas of his own, cranking up the tempo in a burst of fury in the second verse of the first movement as the poem gives an imagined first-person account of a pogrom in Bialystok. His very-young-looking singer, Alexander Vinogradov, is perfectly suited for this — exactly the right true-bass timbre, sonorous, steady, impassioned, strong. Petrenko also takes an unusually fast tempo in the second movement, “Humor” — the fastest I’ve ever encountered — and the orchestra is transformed into a lean, mobile machine minus the usual heavy galumphing.

The third and fourth movements may not have the overwhelming gloom that others have produced, but there is menace and fear aplenty, and the fourth movement’s march segment — where Shostakovich sounds as if he is reaching back to his youth to channel Kurt Weill (his Jazz Suite No. 1 from 1934 also has the Weill touch) — is given sharp rhythmic emphasis. The final movement, “A Career,” in which Yevtushenko (and by implication, Shostakovich) ponders following one’s own muse despite what the authorities say, is really the most dangerous poem of all, offset with the gentlest orchestral writing in the work. The peaceful yet sardonic closing bars are beautifully done here. [Petrenko speaks about the work in a video of the project in progress, below.]

Everywhere, the evidently well-coached British choruses convey the sarcasm, corrosive humor, and outrage of the texts as if they were raised on the steppes, and Petrenko once again has the Liverpool Philharmonic playing beyond itself; he has really jolted them into action in this cycle. In the wake of two previous Naxos Shostakovich releases within the past year — a spectacular, crunching rendition of the Fourth and a gripping Fourteenth (also with Vinogradov) — Petrenko has topped off his cycle, which has many more hits than misses, with a great closing kick. Excellent engineering, too.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.