Recorded 19-23 September 2005 in the Cologne Philharmonie, this reading of the volatile Fourth Symphony of Shostakovich (1936), what the composer called “my creative answer to unjust criticism.” Shostakovich had fallen from official Soviet favor, particularly when Stalin walked out of a performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk without having applauded. An article appeared, “Chaos instead of Music,” which accused Shostakovich of “formalism,” of having lost touch with the people; in fact, Shostakovich had become (in Ibsen’s phrase) “an enemy of the people.”
The Fourth remained unfinished, and Shostakovich became a frightened man. The Symphony itself took on the proportions of an epic sandwich, two monstrously large outer movements on the scale of Mahler bracing a central Moderato con moto of modest size. The opening Allegretto poco moderato is huge, running some 28 minutes. While there are some tender episodes, likely reflections on nature, the sarcastic march tempo and its often hideous guises dominate the bleak sensibility of the emotional landscape. Shrieks and clattering sounds, strident trumpets and the beating of drums, these might well be the Shostakovich version of Milton’s Pandemonium. How quickly had the dream, the “utopia of the proletariat,” descended into nightmare. A musical period ends, only to screech forward again, the low bassoon and string basses invoking a kind of sodden version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. This expands into a full-scale lament, a funeral dirge. It tries to waltz, in vain. Militant and contrapuntal, the WDR reaches a sustained frenzy, Shostakovich raging at the dying of his idealistic light. A new note of burlesque enters, gallows humor from every side of one’s surround-sound space that soon turns into angry, buzzing 32nd notes. Bychkov graduates the dissipation of all these tensions, so only a high pitched pedal remains, then a grumbling tympani, horns, a shattering series of chords that might mark a decapitation. Mahler returns, bitter; maybe shades of Sibelius‚ The Swan of Tuonela. Another lament, this from the first violin. But despair rules, like the last sentence of Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.”
A Mahler-like, dark quasi-scherzo ensues, contrapuntal, sarcastic, as Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra would be eight years later. Whirling figures in the piccolo and songful pipings from the flutes don’t do much to lighten the mood. A four-note figure, ostinato, provides a polyphonic fate motif. The motif evolves into three notes, the winds in trills below anguished strings, a low contrabassoon underneath. The four notes return, a bit jazzy, ppp, a real exercise in dynamic response from the WDR. A woodwind funeral march opens the last movement, another perverse moment borrowed from Mahler. As long as the opening movement, the Largo–Allegro traverses a huge range of emotions, even including a sense of triumph–visions of a Fool’s Paradise? Heated brass and percussion punctuations mark the Allegro, the strings and high winds demented from everywhere at once. A terrible beauty is born. At ten minutes into this disturbing music, the harp makes its appearance in the course of a soft melody; the seductions of appeasement? What follows is an orchestral divertissement, sometimes suggestive of a ballet or film score, self-conscious parody. Are these the dances of one who has made a Devil’s bargain? Shostakovich wrote at the time, “I was so completely ruled by fear that I was not in control of my life.” Bychkov and his superb forces, deftly recorded by Francois Eckert, pay homage to a great soul in crisis; but how often you audition this pained, august score depends on your capacity for emotional punishment.
— Gary Lemco