WORKS: Symphony No. 4
PERFORMER: Philadelphia Orchestra/Myung-Whun Chung
CATALOGUE NO: 447 759-2
After the precociousness of his student First Symphony and the political kowtowing of his Second and Third, Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony was destined to mark the composer’s maturity as a symphonist. But before the first performance and in the wake of the infamous 1936 Pravda article condemning his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Shostakovich got cold feet and withdrew the work. When he finally allowed its release to the world in 1961, it was easy to understand his trepidation. Compared with the outwardly conformist ‘Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism’ of his Fifth Symphony, the Fourth is an audacious work, embracing a Mahlerian range of experience and sense of fate, not a work to endear himself to the authorities as a bland composer of the people.
The Fourth has been lucky in its recordings and Myung-Whun Chung’s newly released Philadelphia account (inexplicably kept in the can since 1994) has some formidable competition from the likes of Rattle (EMI), Haitink (Decca) and Rostropovich (Teldec). It has to be said that Rattle in particular gives the music more character, enjoying the composer’s delight in parody as much as the weight of its ultimate seriousness. But Chung has the advantage of perhaps the finest orchestra ever to record the work, one that excels in the extensive solo instrumental writing as well as bringing power to the tuttis. He also benefits from a spectacular recording that encompasses both extremes of dynamic to better effect than Rattle’s. On balance, Chung is now my preferred choice in this fascinating, resourceful work. Matthew Rye