Vasily Petrenko / Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 14

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Darkness hangs over many of the later works of Dmitry Shostakovich, but never is it as unrelenting as in the Symphony No. 14, Op. 135, of 1969. This work is less a symphony than an orchestral song cycle, containing settings of death-haunted poems by four writers including the incomparable Federico García Lorca, all translated into Russian. Musically it reveals perhaps more than any other work Shostakovich's debt to Mahler, and it might be considered a counterpart to the Kindertotenlieder, tonally updated and made into the product of a totalitarian society. The work requires considerable orchestral forces but has been recorded several times. The music is not easy going, but this recording by Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko has notched strong sales in its first days of release, and it's easy to see why. Petrenko underplays the grandeur of the work and emphasizes the Mahlerian small groups of instruments, especially the unusual percussion section that omits the conventional large drums. The whole thing has the flavor of a death rattle moving among rooms of a large mansion, and it's in many places uncanny. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, as they often have in Petrenko's Shostakovich cycle, plays at the top of its powers, and really the only thing missing is the power of the work's original vocal powerhouse, Galina Vishnevskaya. The voice of Israeli soprano Gal James fits the dimensions of the performance, and there is little to object to in her singing, but real chills are rare. Nevertheless, this reading is thoroughly original and absorbing.

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