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Competent, but not really a contender.
on 11 May 2014
I've been pretty much obsessed with this symphony for a good long while now, and over the years seem to have collected virtually every recording there's been. For this review, I'll pass over the work's extraordinary history, and proceed straight to my comments on this particular version.
Naxos' whole new cycle is a laudable project, but, while it's finely played and decently enough recorded, this particular release is ultimately scuppered by Petrenko's interpretation: while it's true to the letter of the score, it pretty much stops at that: there's very little looking to what's beyond - its spirit, if you like. Others find so very much more to this fantastic (in both senses of the word) work than he is able to reveal here. I'm aware, of course, that it is a bargain issue, but that really shouldn't justify selling the piece short (admittedly, there are full-price versions which fall at the same fence). On its own terms it passes muster, but in comparison to the considerable competition (often to be found as cheaply as discs in complete sets) this recording is ultimately rather anaemic and grey, with its extremes of emotion and volume somewhat underplayed.
In the best of hands, a performance of this symphony can be a kaleidoscopic switchback of vivid emotions and images, apparently as inconsequential as a dream (or perhaps, even more accurately, nightmare), even though a certain structural logic survives. Here we have the structural logic but without much of the emotional overlay, so, sadly, the listener is denied one half of the story and thus the full, harrowing, impact it should possess. To be fair, several other conductors have recorded the symphony more than once, so perhaps Petrenko may find something more to say after further acquaintance.
Where to go for better? Any of the three Kondrashin versions, first and foremost, though the only bargain one is in mono. As a complete set bargain set? Barshai. Modern versions as single discs? Either Raiskin on Avi-music or Caetani on an Arts SACD, neither a big name, but both streets ahead of the recent celebrity competition both for interpretation and recording.
I've thought long and hard about my star rating, which I'm aware is rather lower than that of some others, but, in comparison to what else is available, 'It's okay' (with a '...but' possibly implied) seems about right.
Note: I've removed my opinion regarding the timpani duet which precede the big peroration of he third movement, and which occasioned a discussion in the comments section below since further comparison between this and other recordings and the score have led me to change my mind regarding how the composer's rather sparse instructions should be interpreted: after all, it's not the only final movement in the cannon which has opposing schools of thought concerning tempo - the composer's son Maxim's first recording of Fifth changed the game completely, but not all conductors since have followed his lead.
I should perhaps also point out that unlike some composers who include in their scores directions concerning the emotional colouring of a movement or section thereof, Shostakovich's score for the Fourth gives no external hints whatsoever: it's left to the conductor to find them within the notes,