The extraordinary story of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony involves the fundamentals of censorship. Soviet Communism was a young religion with clear-cut standards. In the West, with faltering faith, a pop star could appropriate with impunity, despite papal protests, a sacred title of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In other lands, where it is sacrilegious to represent the prophet Mohamed in any guise, let alone with a bomb for turban, the reaction was more vociferous, and the immediate result has been withdrawal of Danish products from Middle Eastern supermarkets. Such concerns are essentially matters of sensitivity.
Shostakovich had aroused Soviet suspicions with his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The notorious Pravda article of condemnation appeared in January 1936 while he was at work on the symphony. He completed the work in May, and the première was scheduled for December in St Petersburg. But a commissar turned up at a rehearsal, and the symphony was withdrawn. It remained silent until 1961, when Stalin was long dead, and the early Krushchev years provided some relaxation in state discipline.
And what of the symphony itself? It is a vast, sprawling work, perhaps too much under the shadow of Mahler. It has passages of thunderous impact, but also etiolated wisps of sound that hardly disturb the air. The first movement presents its data as a cogent beginning.
Listen -- Allegro poco moderato
(CD track 1, 0:01-1:40) © 2008 Chicago Symphony Orchestra
There follows half an hour of tormented development that must sorely have strained Soviet nerves. The Moderato con moto is more benign, but it too can shake an angry fist.
Listen -- Moderato con moto
(CD track 2, 6:31-8:12) © 2008 Chicago Symphony Orchestra
The finale begins with a glum march that knows existence will probably not be a bed of roses.
Listen -- Largo
(CD track 3, 2:44-3:59) © 2008 Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Together with the succeeding Allegro, it also exceeds thirty minutes. Powerful as the performance is, I can yet imagine a more compelling version, with no loose ends and a more insistent drive.
Listen -- Allegro
(CD track 3, 6:37-7:57) © 2008 Chicago Symphony Orchestra
On the broader canvas, censorship must always be a personal matter, maybe guided on occasion by the stalwart commonsense of a Mary Whitehouse. I have seen Lady Macbeth once; and that is enough. How often I shall hear the symphony has still to be seen; but in any case I remain my own censor.
Copyright © 23 September 2008
Robert Anderson, Cairo, Egypt
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Shostakovich: Symphony No 4 - Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Bernard Haitink
CSOR 901 814 Stereo NEW RELEASE (2 CDs) 70'26" (CD) + 57'29" (DVD) 2008 Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink, conductor
Gerard McBurney, narrator
Nicholas Rudall, actor
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): Symphony No 4 (Allegro poco moderato - Presto; Moderato con moto; Largo - Allegro)
DVD: Beyond the Score - Is Music Dangerous? :
Bernard Haitink introduces 'Beyond the Score'
Communism is Soviet Power
... Plus the Electrification of the Whole Country
Building the New
Parks of Rest and Culture
Muddle Instead of Music
A Pen in the Teeth
The Kremlin Mountaineer
Fathers and Children
Mens sana in corpore sano
Automata and the Absurd
There Will Be No Symphony
The Commissar Vanishes
DVD Special Features:
Interview with Bernard Haitink
Interview with Gerard McBurney
What is 'Beyond the Score'?
Exploring the Sources
Record Box is Music & Vision's
regular series of shorter CD reviews