Recording of the Week, Shostakovich Symphonies 4 & 11 from Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
It has been quite a while since the previous instalments in Andris Nelsons’s ongoing cycle of Shostakovich symphonies with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (begun in 2015 with the Tenth Symphony, and followed in 2016 by Symphonies 5, 8, and 9), but, my goodness, it has certainly been worth the wait.
Owing to Shostakovich’s somewhat thorny relationship with Stalin’s regime, the intended premiere of the Fourth Symphony in 1936 was cancelled, and the work did not receive its first performance until twenty-five years later. It’s a monumental, sprawling piece using a huge orchestra, and to say that it is extremely demanding technically is something of an understatement.
The first movement is full of moments of stunning virtuosity, not least the Presto section, where a fiendish barrage of string semiquavers is despatched with thrillingly sensational aplomb by the Boston players. Along the same lines, there’s some seamless dovetailing later amongst the woodwind, as the flurry of notes gets passed flawlessly between the members of the section. Even more than these individual moments, however, there is just the right character throughout, with cheeky bassoons, strident woodwinds, and powerful brass (part of the augmented orchestra involves the somewhat unusual addition of a second tuba, and you can really feel the difference in terms of the weight and depth of sound that this inclusion enables).
Furthermore, the last ounce of acerbic bite that I occasionally felt was missing from previous instalments has clearly been saved for this performance: the trumpets have an appropriately caustic edge to their sound, and the second movement contains several unsettling moments, including some ghoulish string glissandos. The final entry of the percussion (led by castanets and wood block), accompanied by pizzicato double basses, very low harp notes, and capped by a flutter-tongued note from flute and piccolo, makes for an eerie close to this bizarre movement.
The quieter moments impress too, with mournful bassoon and bass clarinet in the Mahlerian funeral march that begins the third movement. The desolate closing pages of the whole symphony, involving wandering violin lines and hauntingly insistent celeste notes, are quite disconcerting, and the final portentous trumpet solo is truly chilling.
Written in 1957, the Eleventh Symphony is subtitled The Year 1905, and is broadly programmatic in nature, depicting the events of that year’s Russian Revolution. The opening Adagio, entitled The Palace Square, is a bleak affair, and the Boston strings are again exemplary: there is an icy calm to their tone, and yet also a sheen that somehow offers comfort even in the gloomiest of moments. It’s an extraordinary sound that is the perfect backdrop to the ominous timpani interjections and fanfares from trumpet and horn, contrasting pleasingly with the ensuing turbulence. From the restless cellos and basses, vociferous brass outbursts and menacing percussion in the second movement, to the manic energy in the fourth, this is a terrifying performance, full of brute strength and despair but also great tenderness, particularly from a moving cor anglais solo in the last movement.
Somewhat astonishingly, the concerts from which this recording is taken were the first time in their history that the orchestra had performed this symphony, yet there is no hint of uncertainty or unfamiliarity. I’m reluctant to lay on the hyperbole too strongly, but for me this series just gets better and better, and the execution of this latest pair of symphonies, both in terms of Nelsons’s pacing and shaping of the very long movements and also with regard to the virtuoso playing, is really rather staggering. I’m told that next in the series will be Symphonies 6 & 7 (release date to be announced), and naturally I can’t wait to hear them!
Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons
Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC