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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, op.43 (1935) [65:08]
Beethoven Orchestra Bonn/Roman Kofman
rec. Heiling-Kreuz-Kirche Bad Godenberg, 7–9 March 2006. DDD
Complete Symphonies - Vol. 8

Shostakovich’s 4th Symphony starts in catastrophe and ends in tragedy. In the 60-odd minutes which separate these two events Shostakovich takes us through a gamut of emotions and styles with music ranging from desperate fugue to comic circus music of the most banal quality. But it isn’t banal; it’s essential to the musical argument. And what an argument Shostakovich gives us.

By the time of composition, Shostakovich had graduated from silent cinema pianist to having three Symphonies under his belt – the first, written when he was a mere 19 years of age, had gone round the world and alerted musicians and public alike to the presence of a major talent – as well as a wealth of film and theatre incidental music (including the wonderfully titled Hypothetically Murdered (1931)), and the opera The Nose, after a story by Gogol. His most recent opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was enjoying a most satisfactory run of some 200 performances in Moscow and Leningrad alone - not to mention a myriad international productions - and having seen it on its way, the composer turned his attention to his new 4th Symphony. Not many composers achieve so much before their 30th birthday. And things looked rosy for Shostakovich until the evening of 27 January 1936, when Stalin, the great Leader and Teacher of the Russian people, went to the theatre and experienced Lady Macbeth. The following day Pravda, the official Communist Party newspaper, carried an article entitled Muddle instead of music, and Lady Macbeth was silenced on the Russian stage for 60 years! But the Symphony survived and was set for première on 11 December 1936. But it wasn’t performed in 1936 and Shostakovich withheld the work from the public until 30 December 1961, when Kyril Kondrashin conducted a very successful première.

I can well imagine Shostakovich’s realisation that had the 4th Symphony been performed in the wake of the Pravda article things could have been made very uncomfortable for him and his family, not to mention the musicians who were to play the work. So he turned his attention to the 5th Symphony, described as A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism – although we now know this work to be just as subversive as its predecessor.

So what of the 4th Symphony? It is scored for a gigantic orchestra, has three movements – the outer ones being as large as many complete Symphonies – and the range of emotion is staggering. I can just imagine Uncle Joe’s response to this work. If Lady Macbeth offended him, this work would send him into meltdown!

The first movement is a large-scale sonata movement which encompasses a violent, relentless march, an headlong, manic, fugue, snarling brass, screeching woodwind, brutal (almost sadistic) percussion and a slow, reflective coda, which is not without the odd acidic bite. There is more than sufficient incident and passion to fill several symphonies and it’s a tiring experience to get through for the listener. What must the poor orchestral musician feel like when playing it? The middle movement is a light and fleeting scherzo, ending with the same weird percussion sounds which reappear at the end of the 2nd Cello Concerto. And then we are plunged into the finale, if such it is, for this is unlike any symphonic finale I’ve ever heard. Starting with a funeral march for bassoon and timpani, and exploiting the tritone, the diabolus in music, the temperature rises as the tempo increases and we’re off again, fighting our fears in hand to hand combat. And just as suddenly as the music becomes deadly serious, it turns into a polka-scherzo, a galop and a waltz! Finally, the music relaxes becoming quieter and easier, and it is here that Shostakovich brings in his coup de grace – two codas, the first gigantic and loud, combining the main themes of the outer movements in utter desperation which dissipates into the second coda, slow, grey, depressed, a dead world, all hope gone. The tritone reappears on muted trumpet and the music gradually fades into nothingness. This is the end. There is no more.

A masterpiece? Without a doubt. This, for me, is Shostakovich’s finest symphonic hour, but it takes a conductor and orchestra of some stature to make sense of this disparate score.

I have heard live broadcasts of Roman Kofman, with the Beethoven Orchestra, and been generally impressed with his grasp of contemporary scores so I was looking forward to this disk.

The score lends itself to some freedom in interpretation, and tempi can be viewed quite freely so there is no one obvious way to perform this work. Kofman allows himself quite a lot of license and sometimes he makes it work but there are times when a sudden gear change makes you wonder what is going on. Kofman obviously cares for this music and he takes a very serious approach, but that isn’t enough. This music is wild and out of control – it needs a free spirit to take control then throw all caution to the wind and let the music go its own way. Kofman is far too polite and controlling. He seems to be making apologies all the time for the ferociousness of the music and so he holds back when he should be letting go. The orchestra responds to his every thought and it plays well, but it’s not enough. There was no sense of danger, of being on the very edge of life itself. This shouldn’t be the kind of music you take home to meet mum and dad.

The recording is splendid and bright, but the orchestra seems to be sitting in a large, empty hall, and occasionally detail is lost. Most unusual is the fugue in the first movement – it starts with first violins then one by one the other string sections enter culminating in a fierce battle with drums battering their way through a very full orchestral texture – which sounds as if the string section is woefully under strength, the mere handful of players involved seem stretched and the effect is embarrassing. This section should go off like a rocket, we’re on the edge again, but with Kofman you feel as if you’re standing, with an handful of friends, some way from the edge, in total safety behind a strong, and sensibly placed, fence.

I’m sorry. I want much more from this music than Kofman and his players give me. Much, much more. For real, thrilling and sometimes petrifying and hair raising performances, where all caution is thrown to the wind, listen to André Previn with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (EMI 0094638867623 – coupled with Britten’s Sea Interludes with the LSO) or Simon Rattle and his Birmingham Orchestra (EMI CDC5554762 – coupled with Britten’s Russian Funeral). Here are two conductors who have the full measure of this music and play it for all it is worth, both intellectually and emotionally.

This MDG disk is good, but it’s not the real Shostakovich 4th Symphony, more Shostakovich 4 lite. However, full praise for Iosif Raiskin’s excellent notes.

Bob Briggs


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