Can Shostakovich without bitterness still be Shostakovich? Can a performer still do justice to his music if their interpretation does not match the style and tone of Soviet-era musicians? These questions rise to the fore as the living memory of Dmitri Shostakovich fades further with every passing year. The first decades of the 21st century have been years of transition in how the composer’s music is played. Gone is the febrile intensity heard on recordings conducted by those who knew the composer personally; the expressive power heightened by the raw sonorities of mid-20th-century Soviet orchestras. Today one finds Shostakovich refracted through a prism of immaculate technical polish.

Vasily Petrenko, styled by Lorraine McCulloch, courtesy of Cricket Liverpool, photo © Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko, styled by Lorraine McCulloch, courtesy of Cricket Liverpool, photo
© Mark McNulty

Coupled with that is a willingness to put Shostakovich’s music into a broader context. The sensitive listener may not be aware of the great purges of the Stalinist years or the icy stagnation of the Brezhnev regime, but they will be no less moved by his music. Vasily Petrenko’s reading of the composer’s Symphony no. 10 last Friday at Disney Hall with the Los Angeles Philharmonic was of Shostakovich as a figure that stands over and apart from his era; his art breaking free from the fetters of his time and place. It is no longer solely the music of Russia, solely music of the 20th century. It is the world’s music now; universal in appeal and emotion.

Petrenko’s carefully paced and shaded rendering of the symphony’s massive opening movement – a 20-odd-minute architectural marvel of a Moderato built on a terse, six-note cell – immediately signaled a different outlook. There was no resignation, no anguish, no sense of the music shrouded in penumbral ambiguity. Petrenko sharply defined the music’s features with telling rhythmic and textural clarity that gave – or rather exposed – the music’s backbone. It was a heroic view of the movement that crackled with Beethovenian defiance. Sorrow and pain there certainly was, but it never descended into bathos. The screeching climax was crushing, but also cathartic. Throughout, the music was illuminated with hope tempered with anger.

That anger exploded with near-unstoppable fury in the whirling second movement. Textures remained transparent, but the menace – and malice – in the music did not dim in the slightest. Even a cymbal miscue early in the movement failed to impede the scherzo’s momentum.

In the third movement again Petrenko turned a light on an aspect of the composer not often considered. Where other conductors make the third movement into a mechanical, grotesque dance, Petrenko took a more lyrical direction. The Mahlerian horn-calls, which hauntingly echo the Austrian’s Das Lied von der Erde and recur throughout the movement, were not stentorian and implacable, but soft, even seductive. Recent musicological research has found that the horn motif encodes the name of a woman Shostakovich had fallen in love during the symphony’s gestation. Romance and lyricism are not terms usually associated with the composer, but both orchestra and conductor found rich veins of both in this movement.

Unforced jollity, at times bordering on the manic, characterize the finale. If Petrenko could not find anything new in this movement of unpretentious directness, neither did he disappoint. The orchestra shot through the score with alert precision, carefully controlling its power until the blazing final bars erupted in dazzling, all-consuming daylight.

Petrenko has made a recording of the symphony with his home-base orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. But as fine as that recording is, it cannot match his Disney Hall traversal. With superb contributions from musicians such as Michele Zukofsky (clarinet), Ariana Ghez (oboe), Whitney Crockett (bassoon), and Joseph Pereira (timpani), one can scarcely imagine the Los Angeles Philharmonic being equaled – much less bettered.

From another time and place came Edvard Grieg’s deathless Piano Concerto, which preceded the Shostakovich before the intermission. Joining Petrenko was Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski. Their Grieg tended to the smaller scale: more Mendelssohn than Liszt. Trpčeski’s playing was dapper and clean, if in need of a bit more heft. He was best in the middle movement. But in the outer movements he tended to get swamped by the orchestra.

Opening the concert was a smartly paced Maskarade Overture by Carl Nielsen. Its good-humored blend of pastoral warmth, bubbly gaiety, and classical pastiche was a fine match for Petrenko’s abilities. It also obliquely called to mind the peculiar and often overlooked parallels between Nielsen and Shostakovich. The Russian’s music shows more than coincidental resemblance to some of the work of the Danish master. Shostakovich himself only made a tantalizingly brief admission late in life about his familiarity with Nielsen. Now, if only we could hear Petrenko again, this time in one of the Dane’s later symphonies. There is always hope for next time.