Summer Symphonies: No 62 Shostakovich: Symphony No 4

I have to admit that some of the shock when I first heard this symphony in concert was down to the sheer force of it's presence and it's enormous dynamic range.  I've written elsewhere that this was also an introduction to me to the real Shostakovich - something I hadn't grasped in 20 years of hearing but not understanding the language and something which as gone on to enrich my appreciation of so many more works by the composer since.  So I have both a visceral physical, emotional and, nowadays, an intellectual attachment to this music.  This symphony is much more than that though - it is, to my ear, one of the most compelling and terrifying utterances in all the music of that most terrifying of centuries.  Like so much music in this series, it demands to be heard for it's significance as much as it's style.

The music begins with a startled, shrill alarum - the musical equivalent of a tray of crockery being dropped…twice.  Like Beethoven, DSCH knows how to grab the attention of the audience.  That will be my penultimate reference to other composers in talking about this work - because it really is all about the extraordinary talent of Shostakovich letting rip in 1930's Russia.  That he didn't let rip in the concert hall until the 1960s is another side of the story of this endlessly fascinating work.  Persecution, fear and repression pervaded the time of it's creation and caused it to be withdrawn, not on it's own account but because of Soviet authorities and maybe even Stalin's distaste for Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth.  The composer withdrew the symphony, the manuscript was lost and it was pieced together from orchestral parts for a premiere in 1961, long after Stalin's death.

After that shrill alarm the music moves in a way that is not hard to follow but it is hard to put into a structure - like a motorway journey in a strange land.  Form the outset the sound world Shostakovich makes is both familiar and easy, and, scarily oppressive (much in the same way the opening of the finale of the Third symphony is a terrifying industrialised artefact).  In my last reference to other composers, I think the comparison with Mahler is hopelessly superficial (the near quotes are a misleading signal) the tone is absolutely serious and contemporary and shorn of the nostalgia and sentiment which makes Mahler so tiresome nowadays - there's not a cow bell to be heard!

And as the music progresses there is much that is industrial about it's tone and momentum - partly down to the massive forces Shostakovich employs (well over a 100 players and at least half a dozen of them in the percussion section) and partly due to his choice of timbre and rhythmical backdrop.   The opening of the first movement has a military gait but all the subtlety of the foundry as it erupts.  The contrasts of this work tend to be extreme so from full orchestra we are moved to a chamber music scale episode of no obvious flow - more like a group of people speaking, their voices distinct but of diverse destinations.  The movement continues in this vein and then a quarter of the way in pivots on what sounds at first to be a schmaltzy dance only to falter into a devastating climax.  This is one of many switch-back moments in the work and it is perhaps a mark of the genius of the composer that he manages to keep the variety and intensity whilst surprising the listener each time.  I suspect this is a symphony during which the composer wants the listen on the edge of their seats, if not their nerves, at every stage.  There's much beauty in this work too but it's clouded by the ambiguity of direction and sincerity.  I'm not so sure there's a lot of cynicism here - it is too callous for that.  There is some wonderful orchestration though and these two aspects beauty and detail come out on repeated auditions.  The frenzied string passages on familiar thematic material tossed hither and yon about 15 minutes in is testing enough but the subsequent has climax built onto of climax only to be under cut by a seemingly trivial tune which now holds centre stage which itself dissolves into a quaint waltz which is varied - all in about 5 minutes.  Its perplexing and never entirely settled even on repeat hearing.

I might add that during 2015 I became somewhat addicted to this work - it has the same dramatic trajectory as Bruckner's Fifth, Beethoven's Sixth and Sibelius' Fifth.  For me the bulk of the emotional action takes place at the end - so the first two movements are scene-setters in three respects.  The mode of expression is set down, the nerves are shredded and dramatic arch is slowly turns the temperature up.
The second movement has a recycling rhythm as we might expect in a scherzo and boy does it recycle.  It's vaguely comic at first - it's not a demonic dance or even entirely sardonic.  But it picks away at the idea that music must go somewhere, especially that it must go somewhere special.  There's a deep clarinet trill at one point which will fill Mahlerians with glee.  But all of it remains strictly DSCH! There's much here for the wind bands in the middle and then we sashay into a repeat with a fugue of some well sculptured lines for the strings, interrupted by some woodwind antics which get quite trippy until the brass interrupt.  The music circles round fading gently and inconclusively in a fantastically orchestrated coda.

A steady tread opens the final movement, an eloquent bassoon - Vassily Petrenko has speculated that this movement might have a series of characters assembled in it - it's certainly episodic and each has a different mood.  A martial episode draws in the full orchestra with some grandeur - where this is grandeur of person or place I don't think is worth dwelling on.  The quality of the music here is some of Shostakovich's most light and atmospheric - it must have caused him great pain to think it would not be well received. The whole lot starts again and breaks into a repetitive cycle on winds which is interrupted angrily by the basses.  The winds summon up strings in a rhetorical exchange: part fugato, part escalation, part excitement.  There's truculence in all this music a stubborn refusal to shift gear or conclude. Suddenly - 9 minutes in -it sets light - agitation and ignition only to falter again under it's own weight.  From forest fire we're back at to the circus of characters - Petrenko has a drinking party in his head as he talks about this music - and there is something of the conversation about it.  The first material comes back spruced up and considerably quicker.  The remainder of this episodic feels balletic - and strangely dispersed around the huge orchestra in chamber music style - only occasionally building to full voiced orchestra.  At one stage, trombone adds its solo voice, followed by chatter in the strings bustles along to a seeming pointed response and then the trombone responds and then an oboe: it's all rather banal - not my kind of party.  But the seeds are being set - another Mahlerian quote in the bass may distract us from these endless circles of orchestral conversation.  But it has a point because 20 minutes in everything subsides to quiet and calm: an ostinato remains.

And then in Stephen Johnson's words "something terrible happens" a very violent outburst, beautifully brutally effective descending on this seemingly harmless scene. 

The rhythm falters and from nowhere a new, loud and oppressive version of the ostinato rhythm kicks in.  It carries the whole orchestra in an episode quite unlike anything else in music in it's ominous presence and bleak consequences. This isn't the two sided victory of the Seventh symphony, or the edgy subversion - this is an attack. The two sets of tympani hammer out this cyclic, industrial rhythm and the whole orchestra intones with collective wailing and this just builds to fearsome, no, terrifying climax.  This is builds by augmented repetition - which is thrilling from the first time you hear it, but also by some startling counterpoint of previous themes and deep within the huge orchestra staggering dissonances which revealed themselves to me on repeated listening.  Tuba entries, high horn pedals, woodwind interjections - all accompanied by the sharp bite of woodwind and high percussion - each time twisting the knife, finding the nerve and increasing the tension.  There's a moment that the horns come which I find particularly chilling - blood -curddling dissonance.  The orchestral handling here is a work of genius.  The effect is all about that pre-occupation with pace, timing, repetition and sparing use of huge forces we have endured before until the right moment: then it moves so quickly we don't know what's hit us.  It has more to do with Bruckner than Mahler in my book, though Bruckner was always on the side of reverence and not knee-capping. 

Live in the concert hall the full dynamic range and colour is revealed in bloody spectacle - though the hi definition version of Petrenko's recording gets close than most.  There is nothing like this huge orchestra in full voice - even though the song is one of violent subjugation. As this upsetting episode subsides the conductor must then cope with another challenge.  Moving to the scene of a crime to another of Shostakovich's bleak landscapes - one of diminishing strength, maybe life ebbs away or but worse than that it may be hope ebbs away.  In 1930's Russia both were happening.  The crucial rhythm never leaves us as we hear the music giving up all its elements.  The voices are quietened and the visceral remains ever present in the background percussion. It is dark and upsetting and only a motto for celesta and vibrophone keeps us from sinking too.  Is this one man defiant?  The sunset of this and the rest of the music is a great thing in itself  - not least for it's  conclusive ambiguity.

I still feel like I've been involved in a symphonic hit and run at the end of this work.  Are all it's elements woven together? I'd answer, no I think there's plenty here which is designed to baffle and deflect us.  It is though a thought-provoking symphony which at points has our blood boiling with it's banality, and more importantly by the end has our blood running icy cold with that traumatic sense of witness at a terrible event.

It's up there with Don Giovanni's demise, the finale moments of Symphonic Fantastique and virtually all the Wagnerian conflagrations put together.  It's needs to be endured - life really is like this for many people.

Here's Petrenko


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