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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 4 (1936) [62.26]
Symphony No. 10 (1953) [57.39]
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
rec Town Hall, Philadelphia, PA, 17 Feb 1963 (4); 10-18 Apr 1968 (10) ADD
SONY ESSENTIAL CLASSICS SB2K62409 [69.50]


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The two symphonies are presented cleanly - each with a disc to itself.

As works, while the Tenth has the ingredients of memorability inherent in excoriating drama, accessible themes and treatment the Fourth is more forbidding. You might compare Nielsen's Fifth and Sixth (popular and enigmatic side by side), Walton 1 and 2, Prokofiev 7 and 6, Rubbra 4 and 8, Braga Santos 4 and 5, Sibelius 2 and 4, Bax 5 and 1. The effect is similar. Rather as he did with Nielsen 6 (also on Sony Essential Classics) Ormandy illuminates the Shostakovich Fourth more clearly than I have heard before.

Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony had to wait a quarter of a century for its premiere. Fritz Stiedry had the work in rehearsal with the Leningrad Philharmonic but at this time an attack on his opera Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk and the purging of his mentor Mikhail Tukhachevsky dictated that the work be withdrawn. In due time the Fifth Symphony emerged to Party acclaim. Its overtones of compromise or sarcasm are still debated but it remains the composer's most famous and most played symphony. If the Fourth was driven into the shadows by Stalin, the death of Stalin liberated the Tenth Symphony. Within months of the dictator's death in 1953 Shostakovich began work on the symphony, starting it in April and finishing it on 25 October 1953. It was premiered in Leningrad in 17 December 1953.

If we discount the brilliant but for this listener unlovable First Symphony, the Fourth was his first absolute symphony; one without stated programmatic content. No doubt its power to startle and disconcert was intensified by the contrast with its two predecessors which had overt Communist content. The Fourth had no such indicators and their lack, coupled with the strong dissonances in the first movement (try 12.03 onwards in the first movement) made the work a natural victim of cultural and political paranoia.

Ormandy and his orchestra give both symphonies laceratingly virtuosic performances. The playing lacks nothing in garish colour; snarl and sneer toll relentlessly through the bassoon and oboe lines at 24.03 of the Fourth Symphony's first movement. The 1963 recording holds up extremely well especially when compared with results captured by Russian engineers recording in Moscow and Leningrad at the time. I was expecting an overly smooth approach purged of jaggedness, cauterising acid and raw satire. I could not have misjudged the approach more. The soured and searing Mahlerian Largo-Allegro is, for example, played with no-holds-barred hysteria, ready charnel-house humour (10.49), joyous romanticism garnered from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet (13.01) and a quietly contented ostinato which in its less complicated way looks forward to the haunted ticking of the finale of the Fifteenth Symphony. Ormandy is savagely exuberant in the Allegro though lacks quite the slashing bite and scourging cordite of Mravinsky or Kondrashin.

No Shostakovich expert can afford to be without these recordings which are inexpensively coupled. Ormandy gave the first performances of the Fourth on the warm side of the Iron Curtain. The Fourth is a significant recording both as a 'document' put down within months of the Western premiere and as an interpretation showing Ormandy's DSCH empathy.

Rob Barnett


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