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7. Fourth Movement
by David Barker


Fourth Movement - Allegro non troppo: Tocsin
The Tocsin is an alarm bell, which sounds towards the end of the symphony, seen as Shostakovich’s warning to tyrants that the people will not be defeated. Hence my key emotion is here defiance.

The movement begins with a march, which sounds triumphant, but has awkward moments throughout, and outbursts of aggression. Shostakovich uses two new songs “Rage, Tyrants” and “Varshavianka” (… the fateful battle against our enemies has begun) as well as a return of themes from the second and third movements. My reading of the march is that it is the authorities signalling their victory over the protesters, but underlying this is a recognition of the hollowness of the victory, highlighted by mocking elements that interject throughout.

After a massive crash of cymbals and bass drum, the Palace Square music returns in strings and harp, and the cor anglais sings a haunting lament to the fallen, based on “Bare Your Heads” from III. This is brought to an abrupt halt by tam-tam and drums, before the bass clarinet, evil-sounding, recycles “Oh Czar, Our Little Father” from I. However, the theme of hope “Bare Your Heads” is carried by the whole orchestra, amidst a relentless snare-drum rhythm, and then the Tocsin begins, for which most conductors employ a gong or chimes. The symphony ends in a cacophony of percussion, then suddenly silence all that is left is the echoes of the bell.

Comparative remarks
There seem to be two different ways to approach the opening march: very slow to begin and accelerate, or begin fast, but emphasise the pauses. I don’t have a score to check whether one matches the composer’s intention better, and each approach has its merits with the right conductor.

All but one of the recordings take between 14 and 16 minutes - unsurprisingly, it is Rostropovich who is the odd one out at over 17 minutes.

Barshai adopts a slow start to the opening march, but he creates a mix of triumphalism and awkwardness which I felt was very appropriate, and the explosive end to the march is shocking. Unfortunately, the rest of the movement doesn’t live up to this standard: the cor anglais solo is not one of the better ones, and the tocsin bell sounds like a door chime.

DePreist surprised me here: after being so unimpressive to this point, he produces a finale that is better than most. The Helsinki brass in the opening march is spectacularly abrasive, and there is a real sense of mockery. The cor anglais solo is heartfelt, though the bass clarinet entry is quite muted and has little impact. The brass returns at the end sounding just as good, but unfortunately the bell is lost in the noise.

Kitajenko’s finale doesn’t live up to the rest of the performance: it never really takes off, and while the cor anglais solo is good, it isn’t enough to rescue the whole movement. So a disappointing end to an otherwise excellent performance.

Having ploughed through the previous movement in record time, Lazarev hits the brakes the start of the finale, but does convince in the falseness of the celebratory mood. The cor anglais solo is affecting, and the dramatic ending is helped by good miking that emphasises the bell.

Petrenko attacks from the very beginning, but in doing so, loses the mockery element so the march tends to be more celebratory than perhaps it should. The cor anglais solo is very special, and the ending is brilliant, with the now seemingly inevitable exception of an almost inaudible bell.

Rozhdetvensky adopts the fast start approach, and clearly understands the mocking aspect. Unfortunately, there are some serious problems in the brass section, both in missed notes and intonation, which are very off-putting, and detract, along with the most anaemic bell of all, from what is other a very good rendition.

Having found little in the first three movements to inspire me with the Stokowski, I find the finale to be even less satisfactory. The march seems to miss the point entirely: if anything, it has an element of joy and happiness in it. The huge bass drum crash to finish the march is non-existent and the cor anglais wobbles all over the shop. The tocsin passage is somewhat better.

Having not liked Rostropovich’s slowness in I & II, I didn’t think it likely that it would serve the music better here. However, he takes the march and tocsin at “normal” speed, and it is the quiet middle of the movement that is very slow, giving the cor anglais player a daunting challenge. The ending is less dramatic than I expected, again taken at “normal” pace, until the last few bars when the bass drum really takes up the challenge.

I have left the best to last.

The brass fanfares at the start of the Haitink are out of this world, and the interpretation is very fine as well. There is a battle going on during the march between triumphalism and hollow victory, and the latter wins out. The cor anglais solo isn’t up there with the rest of the orchestra, but the end is spectacular with the usual reservation regarding the bell.

Berglund’s march is strikingly aggressive, a hint of the jackboot dare I suggest, and while there may be little sense of mockery, it works very well. This is emphasised when he slows the tempo towards the end leading up to the percussion crash, giving the impression that the triumphalism has run out of steam. The drum entry which terminates the cor anglais lament is explosive and surrounded in swirling, screeching winds. The tocsin bell is second only to Caetani’s - everything about this is superb.

Caetani’s Milan orchestra can’t hope to compete with the Amsterdammers, but it certainly does a more than adequate job right to the end. I really like the mockery underlying the march here, but where this version wins over all the others is the tocsin. From somewhere - I read one reviewer conjecture that it is recorded - Caetani summons a true bell, very deep-voiced, which dominates the ending as it should. This is truly an alarm to send a message. My only reservation is that the audience applause - no, make that cheering - begins the instant the last note finishes. I can’t blame the audience - if I had been in the hall that night, I would have been on my feet straight away as well.

Best: Caetani, Berglund, Haitink
Worst: Stokowski

Fourth Movement

 

 


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