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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 4, Op. 43
London Symphony Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda 
rec. live, 1 and 4 November 2018, Barbican Hall, London
SACD multi-channel 5.1
LSO LIVE LSO0832 SACD [64:38]

If there is one fact generally known about the Shostakovich Symphony No. 4 it is that the symphony had to be withdrawn before its premiere. The composer had come under fire from Pravda because of his recent opera Lady Macbeth of Mtzensk District (which Stalin had walked out on), and, according to some, was keeping a packed suitcase handy in case he was sent to Siberia. Even so, he had planned to go ahead with premiere until he was begged by the orchestra management to withdraw the symphony, perhaps so they could avoid accompanying Shostakovich to Siberia. After that Shostakovich did not feel comfortable revealing the Symphony No. 4 to the world until 1961, 25 years after its completion.

Mahler was one of Shostakovich’s greatest influences and the 4th is usually considered the most Mahlerian of Shostakovich’s fifteen symphonies. Its layout is similar to that of Mahler’s later symphonies: two large movements surrounding two smaller ones (in Shostakovich’s case Mahler’s third and fourth movements are combined). Its orchestration is on a Mahlerian scale-the largest Shostakovich ever required - twenty woodwinds, eight horns etc. But most importantly, Shostakovich’s symphony combines numerous disparate elements, as do Mahler’s, but here taken to lengths that have made some despair of even following Shostakovich’s musical argument.

The opening of the 4th contains so many changes of tempi and dynamics that one can easily get lost. Sonata form is glimpsed slightly: after the opening there is a quiet passage for strings, typical of the composer, followed by an extremely mechanistic passage. All of this is combined and then mixed with sections reminiscent of Mahler, more beautiful passages for strings, marches, and a host of other things. It is not for nothing that the score calls for 20 woodwinds. They have the most prominent parts in this movement and Shostakovich uses them in every way possible, most notably in a stark clarinet solo over strings. The movement ends with a haunting coda.

The moderato middle movement provides some needed relief from the violence and waywardness of the first movement. It is based on a sad waltz-like theme and a two-note motif (fore-shadowed in the first movement) that will be heard throughout this movement and the next, frequently on wood-winds. Further development of the waltz-theme leads to a sepulchral string passage and a coda on percussion.

As said above, the third movement is in two sections - a funeral march reminiscent of that in Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 and a gigantic allegro. While this movement seems as confusing as the first, it is somewhat easier to follow as much of its material derives from the previous movements. In addition, there is new music in the shape of pre-figurements of Symphonies No. 5 and No. 10 as well as music reminiscent of the composer’s film scores. But progressively, and finally, predominantly, we hear the two-note motif and its extensions. The two-note motif prevails until the enigmatic coda where the celesta has the last word.

The London Symphony Orchestra’s label LSO Live features conflations of two or more live performances so as to produce the most authoritative version of several performances. In this case they have produced an excellent version of the Symphony No. 4 by their Principal Guest Conductor Gianandrea Noseda. He gets tight ensemble playing from the LSO while still highlighting individual instrumental groups and soloists. Noseda also keeps things moving so that the listener does not get lost among the constant changes of dynamics and mood of the 4th. But most important is his control of the work’s constant rhythmic shifts. This is near-perfect. The augmented LSO plays brilliantly, although there is some blaring among the brass. The only drawback is that even in in SACD, or perhaps because of it, the overall acoustic is dry and somewhat flat. LSO Live has already released Noseda’s versions of the Shostakovich No. 5 (download only) and No. 8 (SACD and download) [review ~ review] and it is to be hoped that Noseda and the LSO will be allowed to record other major Shostakovich symphonies such as No. 10 and No. 13 in the near future. A powerful and very competitive performance.

William Kreindler

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