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Shostakovich: CBSO Concert with Stephen Johnson (Presenter of Introduction) Michael Seal and Andris Nelsons (Conductors) Birmingham Symphony Hall, 29.4.2010 (GR)

Shostakovich - Symphony No 4


This was part of a series in the current CBSO season entitled ‘Tuned In’, a plan to introduce a particular work (possibly a lesser known one) to the Midlands audience, prior to a performance of the work in full. This seemed like a good idea at the time; judging by the packed house of young and old many thought the global £20 ticket a bargain. Getting ‘tuned in’ to such a monumental work as the Shostakovich Symphony No 4 in C Minor Op. 43, was a good choice, despite it having already been performed by the CBSO two days previously. Any additional insight into the composer’s mind and the background surrounding its musical construction was likely to be helpful, however well you thought you knew this vast and complex piece. Also with a radio personality as renowned as Stephen Johnson to provide the commentary, what could go wrong? Frankly there was too much verbal delivery in-between the musical examples. Originally billed at forty-five minutes, Johnson’s contribution lasted some seventy because he covered too much ground. The content was more suited to an edition of the BBC’s Discovering Music series. Nevertheless the excerpts played by the CBSO under substitute conductor Michael Seal whetted the appetite.


Johnson cited several events surrounding the 1935 composition. Firstly there was the infamous Chaos Instead of Music editorial in Pravda that lambasted Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, an opera already popular with the Moscow public. Working on his Fourth Symphony at the time, the composer feared more of the same from Joseph Stalin and discretion became the better part of valour – it was withdrawn just before its premiere. Music from this period in the history of Soviet Russia needed to express Socialist Realism, ‘the aesthetic face of Marxist truth’ as explained by Maxim Gorky.


Johnson conveyed his enthusiasm for the work throughout. After the orchestra had played the opening bars of the first movement, he pronounced ‘What a way to begin a symphony!’ Hear! Hear! Johnson thought the driving forces that propelled the initial march were a graphic representation of the atmosphere and sounds of a pre-war Soviet steelworks. He then drew attention to the frenzy of the strings in a later passage, the players so focused ‘they are unable to stop’, perhaps analogous to the succession of ‘Show Trials’ inflicted upon the likes of Meyerhold. Much of the intensity in the music reminded Johnson of Winston Churchill’s outlook ‘In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity’.


During a visit to a room in Moscow for a BBC Documentary on Shostakovich, Johnson recalled an abundance of clocks and timetables, consistent with the composer’s obsession with punctuality. He drew parallels with this in the Moderato con moto movement, a ‘ticking’ passage for castanets, wood block and snare drum. While Johnson alluded to several similarities with Mahler (his Funeral March and the Songs of a Wayfarer) he also found connections to Stravinsky’s Petrushka in the fairground music of the Finale.


Andris Nelsons’ punishing schedule resulted in his late arrival, but hotfoot from the airport he was there to take up the baton for the performance proper. Showing little sign of fatigue, he exuded his customary energy upon his one hundred and ten strong orchestra. The opening chords of the first movement Allegretto were crisp and exhilarating. The twists and turns of the two sonata-form elements and their development can sometimes result in a disjointed whole, but here they were seamlessly fused together by Nelsons and a CBSO on top form. Gorky’s ‘aesthetic face’ of socialist realism may have been absent, but Bukharin’s interpretation of the term as ‘the struggle of conflicting tendencies’ certainly came across. The shrill upper woodwind provided a vibrant contrast to the lower brass and sent shivers down the spine. None of the strings wilted in the ensuing and frenzied fugato. This was not a rendition for those with sensitive ears as Nelsons made the most of the fulsome Shostakovich crescendos; his own enthusiasm was apparent by the occasions his feet left the platform – a passion transmitted to the audience.


The ‘ticking’ forecasted by Johnson was evident in the brief Moderato second movement, but it was the relaxing Ländler rhythm that etched the memory cells, persistent yet never boring. In the expansive Finale Nelsons achieved the impossible; the volume during the tutti sections reached even greater heights. Again the woodwind section leaders excelled in their jazz-like instrumental breaks. The CBSO made the most of the range of orchestral sounds in Shostakovich’s score (the gentle pizzicato of the basses, the rasping tubas and a distinctive contra bassoon, all magnificent) to combine sensations of tragedy and optimism. The final coda demonstrated how much better a work like Shostakovich’s Fourth sounds in the excellent acoustics of a concert hall such as Birmingham. The contrast of pitch between the celeste and the lower strings and timpani produced an out-of-this-world experience in the coda, so different from the preceding stark impressions of reality. It was well worth the wait!

Geoff Read

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