RECORDS / Learning to dance to his very own tune: Robert Cowan and Edward Seckerson compare notes on new recordings of early Grieg and Shostakovich

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The Independent Culture
GRIEG: Symphony; Symphonic Dances. Bergen Philharmonic / Kitayenko (Virgin Classics 7593012)

SHOULD we be grateful that Grieg consigned his fledgling Symphony to the Bergen library and not the wastepaper basket? It's plainly a student work, by the book, sonata-form at all costs, but no one's going to pass by the slow movement without at least a nod of appreciation. I imagine that Grieg's embarrassment over the piece had more to do with failing to be himself. You can hear early Dvorak here, a whiff of Nielsen there, and the finale might easily have been run off from a Schumann blueprint. Not so the later Symphonic Dances, where the orchestra sounds like his own at last. 'Symphonic' is the operative word, of course; in a sense, the music really begins when the dancing stops. Debussy would have had something to say about the ambling oboe tune of the second dance - 'a pink bon-bon filled with snow' was how he once summed up the flavour of another Grieg melody. But the moodiness of these symphonic sketches runs deeper and Dmitri Kitayenko, with robust support from the orchestra of Grieg's home town, seems to appreciate the free and searching spirit beyond the footwork. ES

SHOULD we suffer pangs of guilt for enjoying a work that its composer insisted 'must never be performed'? Grieg himself did at least re-fashion his early Symphony's middle movements for piano duet, so perhaps we shouldn't feel too bad. The first movement is an invigorating Allegro molto with a second theme that almost becomes Eric Coates's Knightsbridge March, then recovers for another idea that anticipates Peer Gynt. But the central Adagio and Intermezzo were well worth salvaging; in fact, the latter anticiptates the Symphony's coupling, four sparkling Symphonic Dances. The first has an unmistakably sunny demeanour but features a contrasting theme full of Nordic melancholy; the second opens with a charming harp-accompanied oboe melody; the third is a fresh-faced Allegro giocoso, while the last is a symphonic poem full of dramatic incident. As to CD competition, Dmitri Kitayenko's main rival in the Symphony is Neeme Jarvi on DG. However, Kitayenko's broader performance is better considered, more thoroughly prepared and certainly better recorded. What a shame that Grieg isn't around to hear it. RC

SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No 4

Vienna Symphony Orchestra / Eliahu Inbal (Denon CO-75330)

SO WHICH is it: youthful folly or flawed masterpiece? Not so flawed, I say. The renegade Fourth holds the key to Shostakovich's entire symphonic output. Some of these sounds - like the spooky clockwork percussion at the close of the scherzo - will come back to haunt us in later works. There is method in the madness, artfulness in the anarchy. Nothing here is quite as it seems: prepare to be wrong-footed. A wistful solo violin is heartlessly mocked by bassoons, a funeral march gravely proceeds to a wake of cheap burlesque. Nothing is above ridicule and the ridicule is in deadly earnest. The manic string fugue which almost completely unhinges the first movement, screams defiance; and there is a very bitter 'victory' towards the close - the flag is dutifully raised but it's tattered and bloody. The symphony ends with one of 20th-century music's biggest question marks. No such uncertainty about this performance. Eliahu Inbal is a seasoned Mahlerian, and Mahler is everywhere here - in the irony, in the emotional and sonic extremes. The opening might easily have strayed from his Third Symphony, except that instead of summer marching in, Soviet realism marches out. Maybe I've heard the piece sound more sheerly 'disturbing'; but never more vivid, never more insanely logical. ES

THE SIGN read 'Danger: no access beyond this point'. So Dmitri Shostakovich slammed on the brakes and retired to safer climes. And if anyone tries to tell you that he made up for lost time later on, don't believe them. Shostakovich's Fourth was too terrifying even for its creator; it's an outrageous monster of a piece, stylistically on a par with Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the opera that had earned its composer a Stalinist pasting and the real reason why No 4 remained under the counter for a quarter of a century. Shostakovich harnessed Gustav Mahler's muse and trained her as an ally. The hour-long Fourth starts out as a shrill protest, swings into exploration mode and doesn't let up for a single moment. The orchestra used is immense, its employment exceedingly skilful: there are marches, uneasy pastoral interludes, furious running string passages, mock-funereal woodwind tunes, thundering full-orchestra climaxes, innovatory percussion cadenzas and, to end, an eerie spell of mysterious questioning. The effect is overwhelming and, once heard, Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony can never be forgotten. As to this particular production, it's surely the best yet: controlled, clear, exceedingly dynamic, sensitively phrased, magnificently recorded and liberally indexed. One comes away from it wondering how much greater the already great Eighth and Tenth Symphonies would have been had the Fourth been allowed to flower in the full light of day. RC

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