Amazon has made a hash of presenting this intriguing program. First, the so-called editorial Review that is abruptly chopped off is actually director Peter Sellars' program note to his staging of the prologue to "Orango." The entire note can be read - and is very much worth reading - at DG's webiste.
There you will also find a long note from arranger Gerard McBurney, who was commissioned to flesh out a 13-page piano score that Shostakovich put in a drawer and never revisited after 1932. The proposed opera would have been an antic, helter-skelter satire aimed nominally as Western depravity (Orango, who is a human-ape hybrid, rises to become a ruthless press mogul, wildcat investor, and hater of the pure Soviet state), but the real purpose seems to be a scatter-gun parody of the social turmoil that was erupting in Russia just before Stalin consolidated power, expunged any ideal of a brave new world, and began the mass horror known as the Terror.
The Prologue isn't advanced modernism on the order of "The Nose" or "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District," the only two completed operas from Shostakovich. It's a manic music-hall romp that the composer cobbled together in a few days before abandoning the project. Since these are first thoughts, hastily sketched and heavily borrowing on earlier suppressed works like "The Bolt," I think the importance of "Orango" isn't great. If you love Shostakovich's populist film music, this new discovery will entertain you. I imagine the best use of it was exactly the theatrical staging that Peter Sellars devised for the L.A. premiere last year. So much crude japery, ribald confusion, and blunt satire is ripe for lurid theatricalaity - at one point the captured Orango, who has fallen form his capitalist dominance to be sold to a Moscow circus as a freak, leaps off stage to try and rape a visiting journalist from the West.
As a performance on disc, the piece is fragmentary and full of hijinks, well captured by a handful of singers and Salonen, who directs with surprisingly crude enthusiasm. The connection with the Fourth Sym. is that it was also suppressed, but much deeper into the Stalin purges, in 1936. A party official interrupted the first rehearsal and forced the compose to withdraw the symphony; the atmosphere of repression lifted enough by 1961 for Shostakovich to feel safe enough to let Kiril Kondrashin premiere the work.
Sellars and McBurney give an interesting new rationale for this sprawling, episodic work - they see it as a crazy quilt of artistic despair reflecting Shostakovich's doomed idealism. Sellars goes so far as to call the finale, which is full of buried quotations form earlier Shostakovich scores, including "Orango," a kind of graveyard deliberately constructed by the composer. I am intrigued. For a long time it baffled me how the fourth could ever be turned into a coherent work; it is far more zany and wrenching in its contrasts than the model of a Mahler symphony on which it is based. If the symphony in Mahler's eyes had to embrace a whole world, the Fourth embraces a universal madhouse.
To accept this view, however, you need to account for the strains of tenderness and simple melody that emerge quite frequently. Only the Machine Age clang of the opening evokes madness or terror. I think it more likely that Shostakovich was stretching his modernist wings to see if he could construct a kind of vast mural, replete with everything the experimental Twenties had inspired in him - that was a shared ambition throughout the brief spring of Soviet avant-garde art before Stalin shut it down with mass murder. In any event, while it was being composed, in 1935 and 1936, the insane apparatus of a totalitarian state was being solidified all around Shostakovich, so I'm sympathetic to the idea that in an elusive, emotionally painful way the Fourth reflects the composer's mounting sense of threat. The inmates were running the asylum, and they would kill anyone who said so.
Salonen has a sketchyo background on disc for Shostakovich, having accompanied the two piano concertos and the first violin concerto. But he's a natural, capable of making every strand in this mad mosaic clear as crystal, summoning excellent playing from the L.A. Phil., and constructing a cool, detached panorama that is convincing, even if one misses the impassioned commitment of Gergiev or the thrust and parry of Kondrashin. It's a toss-up whether "Orango" will ever receive a second recording, but this two-fer is a highly recommendable premiere.