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The Young Shostakovich Molds His Symphonic Sound

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The 18-year-old Shostakovich, photographed June 28, 1925, two days before he completed his Symphony No. 1.

The 18-year-old Shostakovich, photographed June 28, 1925, two days before he completed his Symphony No. 1. Courtesy of Naxos Records hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Naxos Records

It seems like the Shostakovich juggernaut keeps gaining momentum. The Soviet-era musician, who died in 1975, is well on his way to reaching the very pinnacle of 20th century composers, judging by how many people are playing and listening to his music these days.

Last year, a lesser-known opera, The Nose, was produced at the Met and was hailed as one of the great theatrical events of the year in New York. And CDs of his music keep flowing into my mail bin (see the list below).

Although Shostakovich's symphonies are well-represented by major conductors — Mstislav Rostropovich, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Mariss Jansons recorded all 15 — at least two more complete cycles are in the works.

Conductor Vasily Petrenko is recording all of the Shostakovich Symphonies for the Naxos label.
Naxos Records

Conductor Vasily Petrenko — from the composer's home town of St. Petersburg — has just issued Symphonies No. 1 and 3, the fifth volume in an ongoing series with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. The disc is being released next week, but the Naxos label has given us a sneak preview.

As a young man, Shostakovich was touched with brilliance. His first symphony, premiering in 1926, was a stunning success. It heralded him as a whip-smart composer who, at age 19, knew what to do with an orchestra.

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Petrenko's performance captures the composer's willful approach to traditional symphonic formulas. The second movement is packed with early Shostakovich trademarks: punchy solos for winds, whiffs of sarcasm, off-kilter rhythms and slam-dunk percussion, all rendered with agility and accuracy by the Liverpool players.

The Symphony No. 3, in one long movement, is tougher to love. Yet Petrenko makes a strong case for this often overlooked and somewhat scattered 1929 piece, which is subtitled "The First of May." Here we have Shostakovich the modernist, experimenting with the dark interiors and musico-political gestures that would become part of — for better or worse — his mystique. Petrenko's presentation is theatrical and convincing, even in the short choral movement the composer tacked on at the end to fuel the revolutionary spirit.

2011 Shostakovich Releases So Far

-Lisa Batiashvilli: Violin Cto No. 1 (DG)
-Valery Gergiev: Symphonies 3 & 10 (Mariinsky)
-Alexander Chaushian: Cello Sonata (BIS)
-Walter Mnatsakanov: Film music (Delos)
-Matthias Kirschnereit: Piano Quintet (Hansler)
-Hilary Hahn: Violin Cto No. 1 (Euroarts, DVD)
-Jamie Walton: Cello Concerto No. 1 (Signum)
-Bernstein: Symphony No. 5, rec. live (Orfeo)
-Roglit Ishay: Preludes, Op. 34 (Profil)
-Shostakovich Quartet: String Qts (musical concepts)

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