A Shostakovich cycle of special merit, the Nelsons performances of symphonies 4 and 11 bring the BSO to fever pitch.

SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 43; Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103 “The Year 1905” – Boston Symphony Orchestra/ Andris Nelsons – DGG B0028595-02 (2 CDs) 64:24; 62:59  (7/6/18) [Distr. by Universal] *****:

The history of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 4 involves a tale of great frustration and upheaval in the life of the composer: soon after the Leningrad Philharmonic under Fritz Stiedry began rehearsals of this intricate and darkly apocalyptic work in August 1936, Soviet authorities  cancelled the premiere on grounds of “elitist formalism,” that the aesthetic tenor of the work failed to conform to Party strictures about the “People’s art.” Already under a cloud created by Josef Stalin’s rebuke of the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Shostakovich conceived the Fourth as a kind of aesthetic obstinacy of musical principles. The actual debut of this post-Mahler, mammoth symphonic work came on 30 December 1961, under the direction of Kyrll Kondrashin.  Doubtless, the persistent sense of tension and fear that abides in this music corresponds much to the spirit of the times, when a failure to conform to Stalin’s edicts about “artistic realism” meant censure and possible extinction.

The sheer size of the orchestral forces required—125 musicians, recorded March-April 2018—for the Fourth testify to its “grandiosomania,” as Shostakovich put it. Even Otto Klemperer requested the number of flutes be consolidated from six to four players, but Shostakovich proved implacable in his artistic integrity. The music itself possesses a demonic willful vitality, often explosive to the point of controlled chaos. As a test of orchestral balance in the midst of explosive contrasts, this music exacts from the Boston Symphony a uniformity of sound and illuminated resonance it once achieved under Koussevitzky.  Grim declamation alternates with sardonic vehemence in the course of the three sprawling movements, a result of the Shostakovich fascination with Mahler and Bartok, each a vigorous protestor against the spirit of political or spiritual compulsion.  The last movement, Largo—Allegro, particularly, alternates between solemn determinism and cheery, flippant humor. Richard Svoboda’s bassoon in the last Allegro deserves honorable mention. Unlike the music of Mahler, the Fourth offers few emotional consolations or moments of serene nostalgia.  The universe depicted here remains agonistic, a perpetual struggle of dark and less-dark forces.  What sense of play exists seems gallows humor. The music ends with a long, sustained C in the basses, harps, and murderous tympani, an explosion dissonant and unforgiving, that will eventually yield to a combination from the celesta and tympani over a huge pedal-point that dies away.  The rest is silence.

The Symphony No. 11 in G minor was composed for the 40th anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1917, introduced originally by conductor Nathan Rachlin in Moscow, 30 October 1957.  Set in four programmatic movements, the eminently “cinematic” score might have its forerunner in Tchaikovsky’s Manfred, except the tableaux depicted by Shostakovich illuminate tragic aspects of the oppressive Tsarist regime that Russia’s proletarian revolt overthrew finally, as if the 1905 political outbursts served as a dress rehearsal for the downfall of the Romanoffs.  On 9 January 1905,  Cossack horse guards savagely opened fire on a peaceful protest-procession outside St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace. Those who died on “Bloody Sunday” fell as martyrs to the cause of the workers.  And thus, Shostakovich utilizes seven folk songs of revolt and two songs he had composed prior, for his “The Ninth of January,” from Ten Poems, Op. 88 (1951). Whether the events of Russia’s suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 serves as sub-text or ulterior “agenda” for this work in the Shostakovich oeuvre remains controversial but entirely feasible.

The four movements of the Eleventh Symphony (rec. September-October 2017) play without a break, opening with the bleak desolation of “The Palace Square,” Adagio.  The sustained low chords—open fifths, muted strings, harps, muffled drum, and solo trumpet—inhabit a misty, twilight world we know from both Mussorgsky and Mahler. By the movement’s end, the brass has assumed a funereal role, playing dirge or eulogy for a way of life. Shostakovich in the second movement, “The Ninth of January,” quotes the folk-hymn, “O thou, our Tsar, our Father?” The question will become strictly rhetorical once the violence breaks out. The Cossack assault gains an implacable momentum, having released both eddies of sound and a poisonous march. The BSO basses achieve a frigid, eerie resonance whose figures might recall harmonies in Boris Gudonov.  A second folk song, “Bare your heads,” implies both the futile piety of the slain procession and a call for us to mourn the loss of Russian national ideals. Here, the BSO brass and battery proceed mercilessly. The similarities in harmony to militant points in the Leningrad Symphony (No. 7) become blatant and painfully obvious.  The movement ends with the haunted sensibility of the opening movement, a beloved country’s having become a wasteland.

The third movement, “Eternal Memory,” Adagio, utilizes an actual funeral march, “You fell as victims” as its melodic impetus. A nation buries its dead, a moment of cosmic sadness Prokofiev had likewise captured in his Alexandre Nevsky oratorio. Shostakovich claimed that among the protestors that “Bloody Sunday” had been his own father. Set as a series of variations, the third movement provides the requiem which exploits a slow ostinato figure. The repeated four notes could easily be the Shostakovich equivalent of a “fate” motif. When the melody soars full force, the effect—given the drum beats underlining the crescendos—is Mahlerian. The last movement, “The Tocsin,” Allegro non troppo, sets four marching—even galloping—tunes in motion in remarkable combination and permutation. The Russian word for “tocsin,” Nabat, had been the name of a revolutionary magazine that appeared in 19th Century Russia.  Songs such as “Rage, tyrants?” “Sparks,” and “Whirlwinds of danger” infiltrate the rousing texture, leaving us both viscerally beguiled and emotionally dubious as to whether we feel genuine triumph or that “forced gaiety” with which the Fifth Symphony likewise embraces.

There can be doubt, however, that Producer and Engineer Shawn Murphy has a real coup in these sound documents, as rousing testaments to the Boston Symphony as I have heard since the heydays of Koussevitzky, Steinberg, and Leinsdorf.

—Gary Lemco