Monday, June 08, 2009

What I am Listening to Today

Total musical insanity. That is my description of one of Shostakovich's most unique and rarely played works, the Symphony # 4. Shostakovich started his Opus 43 in late 1935 and completed the work in mid 1936, preparing for a December 1936 premiere. But in January 1936, the communist party newspaper "Pravda" published a review of his recent opera "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District" under the chilling title "Muddle (also translated Mess or Chaos) Instead of Music. Under the oppressive climate of Stalin's purges, this was more than a poor review, this was a kiss of death. Some think Stalin himself ordered the editorial to be printed. Despite this attack, Shostakovich completed the symphony and began rehearsing the premiere. During rehearsals he changed his mind and withdrew the work, claiming (much of his life he echoed the same sentiment) that the work needed revision. It was laid aside until its premiere in the Stalinist thaw of 1961.

Scored for a huge orchestra of nearly 100 instruments, this most Mahlerian of Shostakovich's symphonies is oddly proportioned (two long movements bracket a short Mahler/landler middle movement), bursting with themes presented and then discarded (the first movement is nothing but a fantasy on several themes and episodes) and quite long (over an hour long). This makes for few performances in concert but has not kept this fascinating work from receiving attention in the recording studio.

I have been listening to the new Mark Wigglesworth/Netherlands Radio SO recording on BIS (BIS 1553). A bit slow, and thus missing some of the raw insanity of the piece, but a crystal clear recording that exposes all the myriad of detail in this complex score. Slatkin and St Louis on RCA (get it while you can) and Jansons/Bavarian Radio SO on EMI may be a bit more insane and exciting, thus one should have two recordings from this batch; Jansons or Slatkin to listen to breathlessly and the Wigglesworth to mine the depths of this fascinating symphony.

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