Symphonies Nos 4 and 11
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Deutsche Grammophon 4835220 (2CD)
Deutsche Grammophon couples the opposite sides of the Soviet composer’s polemics to devastating effect
“Of course, we know the background of the fourth symphony. It is chilling to know that if he would have performed it at that point in time, he would have most likely been sent to a camp or executed.” Andris Nelsons
Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony is a challenge to pull off; shy away from the wild-eyed expressionism and it’s a hectoring bore but going all out is a risk – when it works it’s a helter-skelter ride but if it fails, full of sound and fury signifying nothing. Nelsons had me riveted from the get go. The precision of rhythmic control coupled to expressive phrasing that speaks, as well as his grasp of the tectonic structure, made the work seem concise and tightly argued. The Boston Symphony’s extraordinary playing elicits enough incidental pleasure to tickle the ear through passages that can become longueurs.
Some may sneer at such superficial delights, but virtuosity clarifies the startling sonorities and textures. Oscillating piccolo against grinding brass chords, precise voicing of wind chords with shifting vibrato subtly changing the hue, all helped by the crystalline clarity of the recording. Listen to those soft tam-tam strokes at the conclusion of the first movement, so well captured as they spray thin washes of overtones, and such eloquent string playing in the central movement.
While Nelsons’ reading of the Fourth has convinced me of its greatness his account of the Eleventh might convert those who scoff at this greatest score in search of a film. His ideal balance of spectacle, atmosphere and formal acuity manages by sleight of hand to conjure a structural integrity to its programmatic flow from the breathtaking beauty of the opening of The Palace Square to the bombastic final pages. Warwick Arnold