SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 1 in f, op. 10 (1925). Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, op. 20 "The First of May" (1929)*.
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir* and Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko.
Naxos 8.572396 TT: 64:33.
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Gripping. Oh, dear Lord! Another series from Naxos, this one an ongoing integral set of the Shostakovich symphonies with Petrenko and Liverpool. They've already released numbers 1, 3, 5, and 8-11. How many Naxos series does this make? I'm currently plowing through the volumes of Igor Markevitch's complete orchestral work. I've reviewed the Szymanowski series, the Penderecki series, the Martinu series, the American Classics series, the American Opera series, the American Jewish Music series, the Bernstein series, the complete Ives songs, the American Wind Classics series, several recordings of classic Hollywood film scores, and I'm sure I've forgotten or even missed a few. Apart from all this, Naxos continues to issue a steady stream of one-offs. I doubt any other recording company comes close to Naxos's distribution of new work and suspect it's time to reassess who the "major" classical labels really are these days. I doubt it's EMI, Sony, or the Universal group, whose major assets lie in their back catalogues.

Early on, Naxos got stuck with the label of "cheap" and "second-rate." However true it may have been in the past, it doesn't apply now -- at least no more than it applies to most other labels you've heard of. These two accounts of early Shostakovich not only succeed in their own right, they stand among the very best ever.

The cover photo features a very young, sweetly nerdy Shostakovich holding a cat in his lap. It was taken two days before the premiere of his first symphony. Shostakovich began the work at 18 and completed it a year later, still a student. It outstrips not only most student work, but the work of quite a few mature composers. It announces a new voice in Modern music. Shostakovich may have extended his language as he got older, but its basic elements show up even here. What hit hardest are the complexity of its nevertheless memorable themes and the sophistication of the symphonic argument. Other striking features include unusual and effective orchestration, particularly the composer's fondness for solo trumpet. Most important, everything -- rhythm, harmony, counterpoint, melody, color -- seems in balance. Western conductors like Klemperer, Walter, and Toscanini quickly took up the work, and Milhaud and Berg became fans. Although only a fool tries to argue with a fact, it's still difficult to believe a kid wrote this. The work has kept its power all these years later.

The Symphony No. 3, like the Symphony No. 2, deals with Communist and Socialist history. These two symphonies, like the similarly "historical" Symphonies 11 and 12, have not fared as well as their brethren. Part of this may have to do with the ignorance in the West of the International Labor Movement. More importantly, critics have ignored Shostakovich's aesthetic basis in these works. They are, in some sense, programmatic scores, rather than vessels of classical form. Indeed, in the Third, Shostakovich deliberately tried to avoid classicism, not completely successfully, in that he aimed to write a symphony without themes -- that is, musical ideas that recur and through their repetition shape the symphonic argument. The structure can seem a "sprawl" -- a one-movement symphony in several sections, distinguished by rhythm and tempo. What one experiences, I think, is not chaos, but a fabric woven through with similar shapes, even though they don't rise to definite themes. Shostakovich has so mastered symphonic time (he's all of 23) that he can even think of taking this chance. Ironically, even the Soviet critics condemned it, in the wake of the scandal of Shostakovich's opera The Nose, on the grounds of "formalism," a charge without aesthetic meaning, almost always made to keep Soviet artists subservient to the State, and thus politically corrupt.

I must admit that for many years, "my" Shostakovich symphonies began with #4. I recognized the importance and the achievement of the First, but I didn't care for it, despite performances by Bernstein, Ancerl, Jansons, Rattle, and Ormandy. I had an RCA LP with Morton Gould of the Second and Third, which failed to convince me that either work merited more effort. Petrenko and Liverpool have turned me around on numbers 1 and 3. I haven't heard their other discs, but you can bet I will. I simply haven't heard such command over Shostakovich's musical narration. The sound is excellent. On the basis of this single disc, I believe we have what may become the great Shostakovich recorded symphonic cycle.

S.G.S. (August 2011)