Every new reading reveals new things about Shostakovich's 4th symphony, and this one, a live performance by Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony, is a wonderfully executed and probing reading. I am certain I'm going to be listening to it many times as I marvel at how different the same work can sound in different hands--though maybe it shouldn't be surprising that in a work as sprawling and variegated as this, different conductors will seize on different points of emphasis and different approaches. No orchestra really exhibits better playing in this than Boston does here, and that, coupled with the exceptionally open and transparent recording, make this a marvel that holds your attention from first to last. I, however, am still struggling with characterizing Nelson's reading beyond making that observation. In the past I've enjoyed his work for its straightforwardness and its clarity, as well as its finesse and the aptness of tempos choices too (as in his disc of Stravinskiy's Firebird and Symphony of Psalms). All those elements are present here, except that in the final measures Nelsons departs from his normal straightforwardness. I've always enjoyed the deep sense of mystery in those final measures, and wished that they could somehow be stretched out further, but now that I hear Nelsons doing it, I'm not so sure. His rather drastic slowing of the tempo in the final measures does not, as one might expect, enhance the sense of mystery, but instead dissipates it, and I think it's kind of heavy-handed, interpretively speaking. Something I did not expect from Nelsons and the one and only disappointing aspect of this 4th for me. I'll get to the 11th soon...
Of all Shostakovich’s symphonies, his fourth is his most extravagant and surreal, confronting the listener with wildly garish and provocative images. His eleventh symphony pursues a contrasting somber tone, basing its subject matter on the revolution of 1905. Instead of surreal images, Shostakovich paints literal aural representations of those painful and historic actions.
Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra present both these symphonies in gripping and virtuosic performances, captured in exceptional sound recordings in which transparency, richness and impact are keenly felt. The results leave you spellbound and emotionally drained.
How Nelsons and the BSO play the opening of No 4 at such speed yet with such ‘pesante’ and ferocity is a marvel in itself. It marks the extremes created in this vivid and remarkable performance at a stroke. Every instrument seems to shed new light on its individual and collective lines, with details to dynamics and phrasing that are quite simply jaw dropping! The sheer power, the extreme range of colours, the exquisite lyricism in parts and the overwhelming weight of sonorities have not yet been presented in greater abundance. Nor has the speed of the fugue in the first moment been so fast yet so frenetic and tight. The virtuoso strings leave one in awe!
But the felicity of woodwind solos, the gleaming power of the brass, the precision and impact of percussion all contributes to an utterly compelling achievement.
Symphony no 11 is painted equally magnificently. The opening mystery is fantastically caught, and the subsequent murmurings leave a disturbing air. The gradual momentum is sweeping and all embracing. The listener hurtles through the frightening landscapes as if caught directly in the terrifying events the score depicts.
Again, it would be hard to imagine greater levels of orchestral precision. These performances must have been meticulously prepared, yet they have exceptional vitality and energy.
So, Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra have created a double disc of immense significance and one that lovers of these important and powerful symphonies will surely relish and treasure.
This is an important issue, and should receive many accolades.
I was able to see Andris Nelsons and his wonderful Boston Symphony perform live at Tanglewood this August Shostakovich's Symphony No. 4. Two weeks later they were in London for the BBC Proms and I heard them on the radio performing it again to a packed Royal Albert Hall.
While I was up at Tanglewood I bought the CD of their latest instalment in their Shostakovich Symphonies series for DG of the 4th and 11th Symphonies.
It has been a very impressive series and I have enjoyed their previous recordings of the 10th, 5th,8th and 9th Symphonies all of which have won Grammy's for "Best Orchestral Performance." Their recordings of the 4th and 11th are also very impressive and the DG engineers have learnt how to capture this Orchestra's wonderful sound perfectly.
Other recordings of the 4th that I have listened to are Chicago SO/ Haitink, Saint Louis SO/ Slatkin, NHK SO/Ashkenazy and the best one the Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Neeme Jarvi account on Chandos from the 1980s. This is a much darker and more probing reading then any of the others with the powerful ending handled very well indeed.
Still this latest recording of the 4th by Nelsons and the BSO although being in brighter sound makes for exciting listening as well especially by the excellent winds and brass. The percussion players stand out as well and this version could well become my favourite.
Of Shostakovich's atmospheric 11th Symphony I would say the Nelsons/BSO is the best I have heard compared to RSNO/Lazarev and St Petersburg Philharmonic/Ashkenazy.