There are perhaps fifty or so recordings already of Shostakovich's
Fourth Symphony, a number of them the subject of critical acclaim.
The RLPO's Shostakovich cycle under Vasily Petrenko for Naxos - this
is volume nine already - has itself been highly praised. It is shaping
up nicely as a contender among complete sets.
Reviews of most of the key players in competition for the Fourth can
be perused here.
Kondrashin, Rozhdestvensky, Barshai, Rattle, Wigglesworth, Järvi,
Jansons, Gergiev - these are among the favoured elite. We should not
forget the long-deleted accounts by Ormandy and Previn. Whether Petrenko
will be admitted to this echelon depends on a number of factors. As
far as the objective ones go - is the conductor keeping to the score,
does the orchestra perform to a high standard, is audio quality first-rate,
is the overall product good value for money even - all the omens are
good. Others are a matter of personal preference and opinion - does
the conductor get to the beating heart of the work, does he overcook
this or under-emphasise that?
Like Petrenko's cycle so far, the Fourth Symphony itself has been
the subject of much discussion, sometimes leaning towards hagiography.
One review of Simon Rattle's recording in the 1990s referred to the
work as "Revolution, October, the Winter of Discontent on the march.
The shriek of the factory whistle, the piston-pumping roar of the
Iron Foundry. Heroic workers unite. [...] equally an angry, cynical,
almost psychotically rebellious nature." Most of that is nonsense.
This is quintessential Shostakovich: not cataclysmic, shocking, savage
- adjectives blithely applied to this work by melodramatic historians
and ideologues - but proactive, sardonic, bombastic. Shostakovich
wrote the Fourth in his late twenties, at a time when he pushed, like
many young men, as hard as he dared against a bullying regime on the
cusp of its murderous 'Great Purge'. He was no revolutionary, however.
The exact circumstances of his withdrawal of the work ante
premiere are still unknown; likewise it is impossible to know just
how angry, or frightened, Shostakovich was at the time - later post-Stalin
accounts from him, acquaintances and speculators are subject to normal
historiographic pressures: political revisionism, memory limitations,
misunderstandings and mistranslations.
Though annotator Richard Whitehouse's claim for the work's 'seminal'
status is hard to argue with, this cannot seriously be considered
as one of the greatest symphonies of the 20th century, as is sometimes
claimed - not by a long chalk, in fact. Shostakovich was clearly under
the influence when he wrote the work - of Gustav Mahler, that is.
The final movement is especially rife with Mahlerisms. No bad thing
in itself but it dilutes any sense of originality. Petrenko's somewhat
cool, almost detached amble through the score, particularly in the
first movement, does little to restore it. Russian conductors have
a knack of making the Fourth Symphony sound exciting, almost viscerally
so in places, but Petrenko, for all the well-observed detail, arguably
does not quite have the measure of it yet. On the other hand, perhaps
he does, and some conductors, like some musicologists, read more into
the entirety of the work than it entirely merits.
The Naxos engineering on this occasion comes close to distortion in
the loudest tutti sections, but manages to keep just the right side
of it. In terms of clarity and detail, the recording is splendid -
probably the best in the series to date. As usual, Richard Whitehouse's
notes are detailed and well written, providing both a cultural and
a technical account of the work.
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