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Editorial Board
Classical Editor
Rob Barnett
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MusicWeb Webmaster
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CD: Crotchet
Download: Classicsonline

Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 43 (1935-6)
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Mark Wigglesworth
rec. September 2005, Dutch Radio and Television Music Centre, Hilversum. DDD
BIS-SACD-1553 [66:44] 
Experience Classicsonline

The Fourth Symphony of Shostakovich is an extraordinary work by any standards. It is cast in three movements, with each of the outer two approaching half an hour in duration, astride a shorter central scherzo. Together these occupy a playing time in excess of an hour. There is a huge orchestra, numbering some 140 players, so that the range of timbres and colours can be very wide indeed, while the climaxes are overwhelmingly powerful. More significant than any of these issues is the nature of the music itself, since the development is flexible and remarkably open-ended, veering this way and that, through passages slow and fast, thinly scored then richly powerful. It is something of a roller-coaster ride for both the musicians and the audience.

No wonder the Symphony has experienced a chequered career. Shostakovich withdrew it in 1936, when it was already in rehearsal for its first performance. This decision had more to do with the infamous attack on him by Stalin in the pages of Pravda than with musical problems during the rehearsal period. After Stalin had launched his vitriolic feelings - 'Not music but a mess' - about the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the composer knew that he was a marked man. And a challenging, modernist symphony was not a wise proposition therefore. Thus the Fourth did not receive its premiere until 1961, a full 25 years after it was written, and Shostakovich achieved a rehabilitation with his Fifth Symphony of 1937: 'A Soviet Artist's Response to Just Criticism'. The nature of the Fifth and whether that title is a decoy is another matter altogether. 

The Fourth Symphony has fared rather well as far as recordings are concerned. Any live performance has to be a special occasion because of the costs involved in assembling such a large orchestra, and perhaps that is why live performances have often been linked with recordings. In this, his first purely orchestral symphony for ten years, Shostakovich wrote the music he wanted to write. The style follows that of the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and the ballet The Bolt, and is therefore expressively potent and orchestrally colourful. The very opening confirms all this, and immediately throws down the gauntlet to the recording engineers, with the huge percussive chord that follows the opening phrase. The BIS recording is suitably spectacular and sensitive, and meets every requirement: it is responsive to detail and has a particularly full and accurate dynamic range. 

The challenges in performing this music are twofold: the orchestra must reach heights of discipline and virtuosity, and the conductor must hold the music in a vision of symphonic continuum and growth. This performance fares well in both respects. The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra plays magnificently, both as individuals and as a team. Mark Wigglesworth is particularly associated with Shostakovich, and is a conductor of the first rank. 

In the mammoth outer movements, both more than twenty minutes in duration, the tempi tend to be broader than some performances, though there is such an ebb and flow of tension and relaxation that such glib generalizations mean relatively little. What is most remarkable about this interpretation is the sureness of line and how it combines with attention to detail, both in the performance and thanks to the recording. Nor does this imply sacrifice to sheer impact; the power is imposed as soon as the opening subject is heard. The first movement contains one of the symphonic literature’s greatest challenges to orchestral strings: a wild fugue at the fastest of speeds. It is a case of ‘who dares wins’, and Wigglesworth challenges his excellent orchestra to play with the utmost energy and commitment. That said, there are other recorded performances which convey an even more intense range of extremes. Valeri Gergiev with the Kirov Orchestra (Philips 4756190) is particularly compelling in this sense, but the sense of symphonic growth feels less of a priority than it does for Mariss Janssons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (EMI 5578242), another conductor of a very special performance of this work. 

In any symphony since Beethoven, the resolution and justification of the journey is an issue of much import. Wigglesworth triumphs in this sense, and his release of the climactic chorale in the finale is wonderfully done. For example, when this closing phase takes over the musical line, the clarity of the ostinato played by the timpani (two players) is marvellously clear and articulate. This is also true of Bernard Haitink’s recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSOR901814) but his tempo is rather slower. Wigglesworth, then, has given us a great performance of a symphony that can be claimed as Shostakovich’s greatest. As with any masterpiece, the best performance is always ‘the next one’, but this will do for now.

Terry Barfoot




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