Both Beethoven and Shostakovich have the power to shock and disturb, even if the former never exhibited the twitchy nervousness of the latter. These two composers, programmed by Kirill Petrenko and Bayerisches Staatsorchester in the latest Akademiekonzert streamed live, produced a sharply contrasted musical diptych. In any case, first symphonies reveal much about individual musical personality.

Kirill Petrenko conducting the Bayerisches Staatsorchester
© Wilfried Hösl

Petrenko appeared less keen to highlight the revolutionary qualities in Beethoven’s First Symphony. As he explained in an interval interview, he regards the second movement (for which the composer initially indicated a very fast metronome) of particular noteworthiness, since in character it points more towards a traditional minuet, whereas the third is to all intents and purposes a typical Beethovenian scherzo. With sweet-toothed woodwind and silken strings, Petrenko shaped the long lyrical lines elegantly and with affection. Apart from parts of the Trio, where he obtained an extraordinarily feather-like quality which reminded me of dandelion clocks floating gently through the air, this was an unexceptional reading. These days doing “interesting” things with the score of a Beethoven symphony is such a temptation, merely in order to be different. Petrenko didn’t fall into that trap. Instead, he allowed the music to speak for itself.

After composing the first two movements of what would turn out to be his First Symphony and graduation piece from the Leningrad Conservatoire, Shostakovich wrote to a friend that it would be more fitting to call the work a “symphony-grotesque”. Petrenko certainly stressed all the expressionistic elements that make up this remarkable piece. This was evident from the start in the gurgling clarinets and sharp pizzicatos, followed by daubs of dark colour from the violas, and menacing violins in their march-like sequences. 

However, what struck me especially in this fine performance was not only where Shostakovich was heading musically, but also where he had come from. The shrieking piccolo was there in the first movement, the Stygian gloom flecked with biographically driven anguish which launches the Finale and, above all in the Largo più mosso third movement, the extended string cantilenas which demonstrate that here is a composer already thinking in terms of the long-breathed paragraphs of the later war symphonies.

Kirill Petrenko conducting the Bayerisches Staatsorchester
© Wilfried Hösl

So much reminded me of the earlier Russian tradition of orchestral writing. The waltz sequences in the opening movement harked back to the glistening chandeliers and velvet and gold opulence of an Imperial ballroom. From closer to the time of composition the beautifully voiced flute solo in that same movement had echoes of the balletic Petrushka, as did the bassoons and ominous tread of the lower strings in the second-movement Allegro. Here too, the snake-charmer oboes could have come from something oriental reimagined by Glinka, and the theatrical flourishes in the brass fanfares of the Finale together with the touches of instrumental atmosphere (glockenspiel set against solo violin) sounded almost like Rimsky-Korsakov.

Yet this was no pastiche. This was the real McCoy, and Petrenko brought out all the inventiveness and craftsmanship of the graduation piece, evidence of what Glazunov as chairman of the examiners deemed “a distinctive and striking creative talent”. Nobody else before had quite delivered this combination of filigree textures at the start which build through the many collage-like effects of mood and colour to the bombast of the very end. What lingered in my memory though was the lyrical intensity of the slow movement, aided by the quality of these Bavarian players: the oboe’s soulful lament, echoed by the cello, the concertmaster’s ethereal solo, and the rapt stillness of muted trumpets and murmuring lower woodwind above shimmering strings. Petrenko and Shostakovich make a winning combination.

 

 This performance was reviewed from the Bayerische Staatsoper TV live video stream

 

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