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Each successive hearing of the Shostakovich Fourth Symphony, on CD or (all too rarely) in the concert hall, prompts a mixture of wonder and puzzlement. Wonder – at the music’s depth and range, as its composer struggles to stretch the scope of symphonic expression. Puzzlement – at its abstract, enigmatic shape and unpredictable character, defying categorisation.
This is the work the embattled Shostakovich withdrew in the final stages of rehearsal in 1936 and kept under wraps for another 25 years. Binding its profusion of motifs into some sort of coherent narrative demands not only an encyclopedic grasp from the conductor but also total commitment and split-second finesse from the orchestra – qualities that shine through this account from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under its St Petersburg-born conductor, Vasily Petrenko. Their Shostakovich cycle just gets better and better, and much the same can be said of their Rachmaninov.
The early First Symphony, consigned to a drawer for several decades after its famously unsuccessful 1897 premiere, may betray the influence of Tchaikovsky and Borodin, but by treating its melodies with the freedom and flexibility they need, Petrenko and his orchestra tune into its emotional pulse: this is a thrilling performance of an underestimated symphony.
Symphony No 4
Symphony No 1