Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4

Vladimir Ashkenazy / Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

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Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4 Review

by James Leonard

Shostakovich composed the first and second movements of his Symphony No. 4 by January 6, 1936. He then went on tour with cellist Viktor Kubatsky, performing his Cello Sonata across the Soviet Union. He was in Arhangelsk when an unsigned review appeared on the front cover of Pravda denouncing his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The review ended with the sentence "This is a game...which may end very badly." When Shostakovich returned to Leningrad in early February, he again picked up the Fourth and decided to begin the third and final movement with a funeral march.

Shostakovich got the point. Vladimir Ashkenazy's performance of the Symphony No. 4 with the Royal Philharmonic also gets the point. In his performance, the Fourth is a furiously angry, endlessly terrified work of hopeless despair, fatalistically resigned to being abducted in the night and murdered. In his performance, it is also one of Shostakovich's greatest symphonies, indeed, one of the greatest symphonies of the twentieth century. Audaciously structured, extraordinarily orchestrated, and exceedingly expressive, the Fourth would be an amazing work if it were composed by anyone anywhere at anytime. But that it could have been composed by a composer living under a virtual death sentence makes it even more astounding. Ashkenazy's performance realizes all the musical implications of the work and articulates all the emotional resonances. The best non-Russian performance of the Fourth ever recorded. A triumph.

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