RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 43 (1936) [65:30]
Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie, Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Mainz/Daniel Raiskin
rec. live, 19-20 March 2009, Phönix-Halle, Mainz (SWR), Rhein-Mosel-Halle, Koblenz (Deutschlandradio Kultur)
C-AVI 8553235 [65:30]
An early performer likened the effect of Shostakovich’s opera The Nose to ‘an anarchist’s grenade’, a description that could just as easily be applied to the Fourth Symphony, written eight years later. The latter’s a hugely talented piece and the seedbed for much that was to take hold and germinate in the composer’s later works. But it’s more than that; in the right hands it’s Shostakovich’s most uncompromising and subversive symphony. Remember, the finale of the Fourth was completed in the immediate aftermath of Stalin’s infamous Pravda article, with all the personal and artistic turmoil that brought with it.
Among the most penetrating versions of this symphony on CD are Kiril Kondrashin’s on Melodiya, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky’s Czech radio broadcast from 1985, Neeme Järvi’s for Chandos and, most recently, Mark Wigglesworth’s for BIS. There’s some dispute about the exact provenance of the Rozhdestvensky, but absolutely no doubt about his excoriating performance. Hard to beat, I thought, until Wigglesworth burst on the scene. In many ways this was the Fourth I’d been waiting for, combining as it does the visceral elements of Rozhdestvensky and Kondrashin with an implacable strength and clarity of vision that’s just astounding (review). Indeed, it was one of my picks for 2010, and a reading I was sure could not be improved upon.
Enter Daniel Raiskin, the up-and-coming maestro from St. Petersburg and, since 2005, the chief conductor of the Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie. Lest one is tempted to write off these provincial bands, remember Wigglesworth’s Dutch radio orchestra play Shostakovich as if to the manner born. Factor in a top-notch hybrid recording from BIS and you’ll understand why these newcomers elicited polite interest rather than outright enthusiasm when the disc was offered for review.
Well, seconds into the Allegretto and any such doubts are thrust aside by the most lacerating introduction to this symphony I’ve ever encountered. The shrieking strings, chatter of woodwinds and bone-crushing contributions from the percussionists simply beggars belief. It’s not just about heft, for the alarums and excursions that ensue are every bit as gripping, Raiskin extorting exceptional, razor-sharp attack from his players. Wigglesworth is broader and there’s much more air around the notes, but the Russian’s reading – and Avi’s close recording – are alive with detail and arcing with unrelieved electricity.
Shostakovich’s strange ditties and diversions are all uncovered with forensic skill, the orchestra responding to this wild music with remarkable assurance. Raiskin never allows the pace to flag and the climaxes – judiciously scaled – are staggering in both breadth and intensity. As for those Mahlerian crescendi, they’ve seldom sounded so menacing, the timps so brutal. One really is in the front row of the stalls here, and there’s no escape from the withering fire. Even Shostakovich’s more spectral writing is as revealing as an x-ray image, the yearning strings most beautifully caught. But it’s Raiskin’s strong, steady pulse that holds all these disparate elements together, the music utterly compelling throughout.
And how winningly he phrases the opening of the Moderato. That said, Raiskin brings something of Bartók’s nervous energy – and colour - to the score. There’s a pleasing sense of proportion as well, all those sardonic asides voiced with as much care and attention as the symphony’s more spectacular outbursts. No apologies need be made for the fact that this is a live recording, made over two nights and in different venues; detail is abundant, perspectives are consistent, and the audiences are very quiet indeed.
The Largo – Allegro has a pronounced Mahlerian cast, the opening cortege played with splendid character and weight. It’s those gaunt little tunes that bubble up and then subside that give this movement its abiding strangeness, that first peroration as anguished as I’ve ever heard it. This really is a Lubyanka-like edifice of dread and despair, as dark as anything Shostakovich ever wrote, and Raiskin wrings the most individual sonorities from his players. Not only that, he builds tension like few others, that crazed march underpinned by the truly explosive thud of timps and crowned with fevered brass.
In a work littered with frigid interludes this movement has more than its fair share of chill-inducing moments, with Shostakovich passing uneasily between cold terror and grim comedy. As for that lampooning brass, it’s superbly managed, the Mahlerian scurry beneath it deftly done. And all the while Raiskin maintains a mesmeric tension, so that when that cataclysm finally arrives it’s been well prepared. Goodness, this is a scream like no other in the symphonic repertoire, the Avi engineers drawing out every last, incandescent detail and decibel. But it’s the haunted postlude that’s really terrifying; this is truly a blasted heath, a no-man’s land of unimaginable bleakness. As compelling as Wigglesworth is at this point, Raiskin distils something quite extraordinary from the notes. The ghostly shimmer of the celesta is indescribably moving.
Having emptied the cupboard of superlatives, all I can say is that Daniel Raiskin is a man to watch. Like that anarchist’s ordnance, he’s blown away every shred of smugness and complacency I felt before hearing this phenomenal performance.
Shattering, unforgettable Shostakovich.
Shattering, unforgettable Shostakovich.