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Is this the new, new Shostakovich?

With each symphony released, the Liverpool cycle conducted by Vasily Petrenko grows in stature and detachment. Petrenko, 36, is the first of the post-Communist generation to approach the music without reference to past ideological wars.

So why the headline? The New Shostakovich was the title of a brilliant 1990 biography by the late English writer Ian MacDonald, who made a case for the composer as a passionate, closeted dissident against Soviet policies.

the new shost


The book was endorsed by Vladimir Ashkenazy, Semyon Bychkov, Maxim Shostakovich and others who knew the composer and his environment. It became the focus of organised attacks by revisionist American musicologists, who maintain that Shostakovich was a cowed subject of the Soviet system, which he originally supported. The row rages on.

But that was then, this is 2013. Petrenko’s account of the seventh symphony attempts to save the work from its chequered history. It is my album of the week on



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  1. SergioM says:

    I have several of Petrenko’s other Shostakovich recordings (a few I got autographed by him) and they’re among the best I’ve ever heard. Already getting this new one

  2. Of course Shostakovich was ‘both’ against the regime ‘and’ a cowed subject of it – like every other genuine intellectual under the Soviets.( Reading, for example, the magnificent books of Vasily Grossman can leave no-one with any doubt about this.) The music speaks, and drowns into insignificance the pathetic in-house wars of Western academics.

  3. Iain Scott says:

    Hearing Shostakovitch 7 is one thing,seeing t is another,particularly when Neeme Jarvis is at the helm with the RSNO. He performed this a few years ago with very little movement except the ccasional shrug of the shoulders to unleash a torrent.
    Will be interesting to compare his Chandos recording with the new one from Petrenko and RLPO

  4. Each of the symphonies that I have heard from Petrenko have been terrific and I look forward to hearing more of them.

    With regard to the book, I found it really heavy on the conspiracy theories and drawing conclusions that may not be there. His theory that every two-note slur is Shostakovich saying “Stalin” is a bit much for me.

  5. Chris, I spent two years revising that book for its 2006 republication and with the full approval of the late Ian MacDonald’s family I removed ALL of that “two notes = Stalin” nonsense. It was based upon literally hundreds of misreadings of the score by the original author (most of the “two note” motifs were fragments, taken out of context, of larger phrases). There’s plenty of other genuine hidden messages without resorting to ‘two note’ symbolism which simply isn’t there. I wonder what Ian would have thought of the Die Meistersinger quotation at the start of the Viola Sonata’s last movement, and its significance? Nobody seems ever to have spotted this.

    • Good to know, Raymond. It’s worth another look because while there was a lot of great information, a lot of that speculation had no basis in truth.

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