In 2004 musicologist Olga Digonskaya discovered a new Shostakovich work, the Prologue to Orango, what the composer had planned to be a large three act opera, which he never completed due to the hostile political environment. It's not hard to see why he would have abandoned the project in 1932, as the first waves of governmental repression were sweeping through the artistic community, in which an avant-garde spirit of experimentalism and modernism was flourishing. It's among his most overtly, daringly political works, filled with outrageously scurrilous sexual references. It's also a painful reminder of what a brilliant theatrical composer he was and what a tragedy it is that he produced a single entirely complete opera.
Peter Sellars, who directed the premiere performance of the Prologue (in a version orchestrated by Gerard McBurney at the composer's widow's request) in 2011 with Esa-Pekka Salonen leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Chorale, and an outstanding cast of soloists, pretty well sums up the Prologue when he describes it as "an amalgam of pure dramatic shock, sharp political critique, popular mass culture, wild character pieces, sexy ballet episodes, heartfelt social protest music and sheer operatic pandemonium." And all this in just 30 minutes! The performance bristles with irreverent, manic high spirits and a sparkling tone of loose-limbed goofiness. Musically, the Prologue is intensely complex, but the performers' light touch and easy assurance make it sound like pure fun. Fans of the composer's will not want to miss this significant addition to his legacy.
Shostakovich wrote the Fourth Symphony in 1935 and 1936. By the time he had completed it, Stalin's attacks had made him persona non grata and he wisely withheld the symphony from performance until 1961. While the music is not as provocative as that of Orango, it is sufficiently modernist and indifferent to symphonic conventions that it certainly could not have withstood the ever narrowing scrutiny of the Soviet censors. Often described as Mahlerian in its scope and reach, it is profound, brilliant, and sometimes perplexing, but always deeply personal and powerfully engaging. Salonen allows its strangeness -- of orchestration, structure, and musical language -- to make its full impact, while giving full voice to its expansive expressiveness and emotional immediacy. The Los Angeles Philharmonic plays with dazzling precision and tonal warmth; this is the kind of highly charged and immaculate performance that confirms its reputation as one of the world's leading orchestras. Deutsche Grammophon's live recording has great depth and spaciousness. The sound is large but at the same time intimate, and details pop with exceptional clarity.