double play; Shostakovich: Symphony No 4. Britten: Russian Funeral City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (EMI 5 55476 2)
'One might miss the rougher-hewn cast of Russian performances, but the final climax is tremendous - fractured timpani tattoos, disfigured trumpetings, the revolutionary ensign in tatters...' 'I don't know whether Rattle decided to go for stoicism rather than abject despair in the coda, but that was the effect for me, and I have to say I missed Kondrashin's very Russian pathos'
Friday 01 September 1995
This is a truly amazing piece: weird, wilful, wonderful. No prizes for guessing that Shostakovich was infatuated with Mahler's Third - except that Summer never marched to this tune. This is Revolution, October, the Winter of Discontent on the march. The shriek of the factory whistle, the piston-pumping roar of the Iron Foundry. Heroic workers unite. Then what? So much is going on here - and at so many levels. Contrary to first impressions, there is method, order, in the madness, but equally an angry, cynical, almost psychotically rebellious nature. And Simon Rattle knows all too well that it's not for compromising.
Rattle performances don't always sound lived-in. The musicianship can sometimes inhibit the spirit. But not here. Take the galloping delirium generated from that wild and unsolicited string fugue in the first movement (it's like it's there simply to expend energy, to work off frustration after a heavy day's composition): Rattle's CBSO strings go for it with a will, and the climax - arriving with thrilling impact in the huge dynamic range of EMI's recording - is of a kamikaze-like abandon.
All right, so one might conceivably miss the rougher-hewn colour and cast of Russian-bred performances (Kondrashin; Rozhdestvensky), but Rattle's sophisticated nose for irony pays off richly in the wickedly irreverent divertissement of dances that invades the tragic business of the finale. "Operatic" clowning here from the CBSO's principal bassoon and trombone. After which, comes the fall. The final climax of disillusionment is tremendous - fractured timpani tattoos, disfigured trumpetings, the revolutionary ensign in tatters.
Britten plainly had higher hopes for Stalin's Soviet Union. But his Russian Funeral for brass and percussion of 1936 begs the question: whose funeral? With hindsight, do we really need to ask?
By just about every canon of symphonic good taste, Shostakovich's Fourth ought not to work. The mood-swings are extreme and often startlingly abrupt, from grotesquery to naivety to high tragedy and back again. The use of the huge orchestra can be wonderfully delicate one moment, almost megalomaniacal the next. Formally the outer movements are bewildering in their sheer fecundity, while the central Scherzo is simplicity itself - at least as far as its broad outlines go.
But in a good performance these seeming weaknesses look more like exceptional strengths. Rattle's new version sounds thoroughly convinced from start to finish. True, it doesn't quite match the ferocious, desperate intensity of Kondrashin's old Soviet recording, but it has virtues of its own - awe-inspiring grandeur and a hush that chills in the ominous quiet passages. The sense of cumulative intensity in the immense outer movements is more powerful than in any recorded version since Kondrashin. I don't know whether Rattle decided to go for stoicism rather than abject despair in the coda, but that was the effect for me, and I have to say I missed Kondrashin's very Russian pathos. But it's still very impressive, at the same time convincing as the summation of a highly unorthodox symphonic experience.
And the Britten? On paper it seems the near-ideal encore - written in the same year as the symphony, based on an elegiac Russian theme Shostakovich also used, and beginning in the key of the symphony's close, C minor. But Shostakovich's Fourth needs no encore, and effective as it is, Britten's gesture of sympathy with the victims of the Russian Revolution sounds more than a tad lightweight after Shostakovich's monument to the Great Terror.
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