Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
LABELS: BIS
WORKS: Symphony No. 4
PERFORMER: Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Mark Wigglesworth
CATALOGUE NO: BIS SACD-1553 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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This is one of those symphonies, like Mahler’s Seventh, which demand so much orchestral preparation that you rarely hear a less than compelling interpretation. Recently we’ve had top-notch discs from Gergiev, Jansons, Barshai and Haitink. For me, Wigglesworth’s latest instalment in his long-term Shostakovich cycle goes even deeper – something I might have expected from his shattering English National Opera performances of the near-contemporary Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

Climaxes here are comparably weighty, but there’s a clarity and an expressive care throughout which inform even those first-movement passages where Shostakovich seems suspended in a pale kind of purgatory. The only pity is that Wigglesworth, in his well-written liner note, sticks to history and doesn’t offer first-time listeners a guide through the composer’s thorniest symphonic structures; maybe, though, the conducting and the playing here are enough to hold attention throughout.

What finally sets the seal on this as a top recommendation is the recording’s dynamic range, both in standard and SACD formats. Every instrumental colour comes over truthfully in the sand-blasting ensembles, with gunshot timpani and rattling woodblock, while you have to strain to catch the ghostly flickers of harp and woodwind in limbo (like Abbado and Rattle, Wigglesworth dares genuine pianissimos).

Everything is humanised, so that the conflict of the Finale is a whirlwind battle rather than a grinding mechanism, and even the circus ditties before the final storm have charm as well as nuance. The end is as mesmerising as it can be, raising unmistakeable parallels with the fading heartbeat of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique.

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Is Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony an equal masterpiece? Mark Wigglesworth and his Dutch players persuade me that it is. David Nice