on 4 May 2016
Let us put cards on the table straight away: this Symphony is a challenge and not for the faint-hearted. However, there is much to savour and repeated hearings will reveal a great deal that is likely to be missed on a first hearing. There are moments of exquisite calm yet mixed with sardonic outbursts, anger and even violence. Let me say at the outset that Simon Rattle and the CBSO do a splendid job: the recording is clear and crisp with terrific momentum. Maestro Rattle did so much for the CBSO and many people, myself included, think his finest recordings to date are with this splendid British Orchestra.
But back to Shostakovich: the Fourth is the first work in which he deliberately set out to write a "True" Symphony, to show that perhaps a modernist could still display heroics, albeit in a Communist State, but - as Hugh Ottaway has pointed out - his aim was to reconcile his new musical language with the traditional concept of a Symphony. The Orchestra is the largest he ever used, and a notable influence at many points is that of Gustav Mahler. Shostakovich had studied Mahler's Symphonies, specifically the Third, but instead of Summer Marching In, as it does in the Mahler, October Marches In (we note the Revolutionary Month). The opening movement is an immense structure - as was Mahler's - and you will find echoes of the 19th Century, but re-charged into the 20th. There are moments of incredible tension, Nirvana-like solitude and the ending of the movement is enigmatic, descending to silence, which of course distances it from Mahler's first movement, which ends in something of a riot. but we shall have need to return to Mahler in the course of this review.
I have noted, that some other reviewers have referred to this work as a "Masterpiece". Whilst I respect their opinions, I cannot agree. It is very much a transitional work, not a climax of the Composer's modernism; he himself was never satisfied with it. Only 18 months before his death, Shostakovich declared it was "too long", and said there were too many imperfect and ostentatious elements in it, which affected the shape of the entire work. He revised it considerably, but never thought he had got it quite right. He had a point: the physical assaults (to quote Hugh Ottaway again) are deliberate, but there are also many delicately scored, and very moving passages, and his Orchestration is mainly masterly - I say "mainly" since there is no doubt that a deal of over-scoring does occur. One only has to look at the following 5th Symphony to realise how he had subsequently advanced, and that he had surely reached a crisis in the composition of the 4th.
The shrieking opening of the work with the the xylophone dominant, swiftly progresses to the stamping opening theme: a musical portrayal of the first 5-year Plan, as the programme notes inform us. in fact there are 3 main themes: the other two are a calmer one for strings and a solo bassoon episode, with huge Orchestral climaxes in between. En route, there are some perky little woodwind episodes which subside into silence, which the orchestra then proceeds to demolish. The bassoon theme is followed by some anguished string music and a period of uneasy calm.
Once these opening passages are assimilated, the rest of the movement is more easily followed: the striking contrasts are developed, a great deal is happening: there is one vicious climax followed by a reduction in intensity, but although it can be argued that the recapitulation is too long delayed, we eventually return to the opening stampeding subject, back in C Minor, heralded by discordant Brass. The themes are now played in reverse order. The recapitulation is much curtailed and I am reminded of the end of the first movement of Mahler's 9th Symphony as the orchestration is of a Chamber-like quality where the themes gradually disintegrate. A ghostly march rhythm takes us to the close, with one piercing echo of the opening, before...silence. Moving as this undoubtedly is, it does not comprise a completely coherent whole, which the Mahler does.
The second, short. movement (only just over 8 and a half minutes) is a Moderato and semi-Scherzo. The easy string tune that opens it has another Mahlerian flavour: the four-note descending theme pervades the movement, and the programme notes suggest that the music is a "cousin" of the negativity of the 3rd movement of the Mahler "Resurrection" Symphony. I am not convinced of this, since the Mahler is a response by St. Antony of Padua to the negative attitude of the fishes, following his Sermon, which results in the "Cry of Disgust". I see no parallel of that here: the quiet percussive ending is negative and perhaps bitter, but not as a result of a positive statement by the likes of St. Antony. Shostakovich's ending of this movement actually looks way ahead to the final bars of his 15th Symphony.
The movement is not as nearly so heavily scored as the other two: it is also much more compact but the Finale is another matter.. Mahler appears even more strongly here in this final movement, which is an extraordinary patchwork quilt. The slow march that opens it is obviously Mahler-inspired, and pervades much of what follows. However, there is a foreshadowing of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony in the music that leads up to the first Grand Climax: both Composers are surely holding hands here.
The movement is not, however, an organic whole: the slow march heralds a brutal and aggressive Allegro, and we then turn to parody and burlesque: the piccolo and bass clarinet introduce elements of dance: waltz, polka, galop, delicately and engagingly scored and moreover good-humoured, but then we progress to a colossal intense C Major Climax, which, despite the key, is not optimistic and results in a dying fall. The close sees a Major third subsiding to a minor third - my last reference to Mahler who did the same in his 6th Symphony. These pages are extremely emotional and we again note a Chamber-like quality in the scoring: the entire work fades to silence that is neither peace nor resolution: a kind of acceptance but of what? I
So we must inevitably conclude that the various diverse elements of this work do not really add up to a convincing conclusion to the entire Symphony. We have no final peroration, whether triumphant, tragic, or a peaceful, logical ending to a journey, and the Finale in particular is the culprit in that it lacks coherence, and that is why this work falls short of being, in any way, a Masterpiece. But the work is fascinating because of what it heralds, what it tries to do and why in the end it fails. There is much to enjoy, but yet to ponder on; the early Symphonies showed enormous promise: the Fourth, despite its imperfections, showed what was to follow. Perhaps the Great 5th, 8th. 10th and 11th Symphonies could not have happened without this work.