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Lesser Shostakovich Finds A Home In Liverpool

Dmitri Shostakovich, 1960.
Erich Auerbach
Getty Images
Dmitri Shostakovich, 1960.

For this sixth volume of their complete Shostakovich symphony cycle, conductor Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra have a task and a half at hand: transforming two works – among Shostakovich's weakest conceptually and architecturally – into forceful, persuasive and galvanizing performances.

They manage this feat just fine, capturing the sweep of the massive, nearly 20-minute Largo (!) that opens (!!) the Sixth Symphony. In lesser hands, this music can become an exercise in near-aimless wandering. Here, though, it's a study in existential despair. Throughout the movement, Shostakovich intentionally leaves individual elements and sections hyper-exposed, creating an air of fragility and vulnerability – two qualities you don't often associate with a full orchestra. Kudos to the Liverpool musicians for leaping over all the booby traps the composer has set for them with such aplomb.

By the second movement, we find Shostakovich back in near-trademark form, ferociously colorful and sharply witty:

Similarly, the Sixth Symphony's concluding Presto snaps along with tons of snarling percussion, save a peculiar solo violin passage that seems to belie the movement's intentions; it's one of the curiosities of this symphony that doesn't seem to coalesce into a larger idea.

For years, Shostakovich professed an intention to create a large-scale work celebrating Lenin. He finally began serious work on such a piece – what became the Symphony No. 12, "The Year 1917" – around 1959, intending to premiere it in time for the 90th anniversary of the leader's birth in April 1960. Though Shostakovich missed that self-imposed deadline, he completed it the following year. While even he admitted it was a lesser work, Petrenko and the orchestra give noble effort, depth and weight to this bombastic jingoism (with such movement titles as "Revolutionary Petrograd" and "The Dawn Of Humanity"). Still, the reason you want to hear the recording is the Sixth Symphony, and this superb performance.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a correspondent on NPR's Culture desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including the trial and conviction of former R&B superstar R. Kelly; backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; and gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards.