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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett


Symphony no.4 in C minor, op.43 (1936)

West German Radio Symphony Orchestra/Rudolf Barshai

Recorded April and June 1996, Philharmonie, Cologne

REGIS RRC 1103 [62:07]


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This symphony was a water-shed in Shostakovich’s career, and despite its disappearance – or rather non-appearance - for twenty-five years, remains one of his greatest and most compelling works. I shall not repeat the well-known story of the events surrounding the work; suffice it to say that the piece was withdrawn from rehearsals in the wake of the Lady Macbeth affair, and replaced with the equally great, but more equivocal, Symphony no.5.

Barshai conducts a truly superb performance here. There is no point in doing this piece at all unless you go for the jugular, glorying in the excesses and the deliberately expressed megalomania. Some passages are truly terrifying, such as the headlong rush of string fugato which leads to the main climax of the first movement – never have I heard it attempted so fast, and there is a thrilling feeling of the players hanging on – just – by their fingertips.

The very Mahlerian second movement is done equally well, with a tempo that allows it to flow, yet preserves the essential heaviness. The finale succeeds brilliantly, all its sections rendered sharply and mercilessly, and the ending as devastatingly pessimistic as it should be – the feeling of desolation after so much frantic activity is captured perfectly. Indeed, I have never heard a recording which found a better balance between episodic characterisation and long-term symphonic thinking.

The orchestral playing is quite outstanding. I mean no disrespect when I say that you wouldn’t guess that this was a German orchestra! Shostakovich admirers will perhaps know what I mean; the German tendency is towards smoothness, richness and blend, whereas this music needs something blatant and elemental in the sound. These players are able to deliver that, overwhelmingly at times, and there is also much quite wonderful solo playing, notably from the principal bassoon, for whom the score is littered with solos – the still, small voice of sanity amongst all the chaos and violence.

(Interestingly, the first ever recording, by Ormandy, credited the Philadelphia’s principal bassoon Bernard Garfield – that should surely happen here too).

What a work, and what a performance; and it represents unbeatable value for money at circa £4.99 knocking the creditable Naxos version into a cocked hat – no contest.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

See also the Complete symphonies conducted by Barshai reviewed by David Billing Paul Serotsky and Chris Howell


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