Symphony No. 4 in C minor, op. 43; Symphony No. 11 in G minor, op. 103 ‘The Year 1905’
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
DG 483 5220 127:06 mins (2 discs)
The Fourth is the sleeping giant of Shostakovich’s symphonies. Over an hour long and massively scored, it’s never quite recovered from the 25-year hiatus between the cancellation of its scheduled first performance in 1936, in the shadow of the official censure of the composer’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, and its eventual premiere in the post-Stalin era in 1961. But it’s significant that two of the Symphony’s three movements had been completed, in relatively calm circumstances, before that ominously critical Pravda article appeared. Andris Nelsons takes a hint from this by not winding up the intensity to screaming pitch throughout the work, but instead responds readily to its Mahlerian panorama of diverse, often parodied, moods and genres – march, waltz, scherzo, funeral march, even an episode of birdsong, all punctuated by brutal interjections – as if from moment to moment. (Perhaps literally so: an awkward slight shift of tempo at 5:50 into the second movement sounds suspiciously like a splice between two different takes.)
In this latest instalment of Nelsons’s Shostakovich cycle, the Fourth is paired with the Eleventh, from 1957: another work of epic proportions, but this time cinematically direct in its depiction of the failed Russian revolution of 1905. Nelsons keeps a firm grip on the unfolding of the drama. And here, as in the Fourth, his Boston Symphony Orchestra responds with supreme virtuosity from every section. Whether or not the excellent recordings were really captured live, as DG claims, you’ll never hear these symphonies better played.