Mariss Jansons' DSCH-4 

Did I not just review a Shostakovich 4th Symphony? Valery Gergiev’s most recent DSCH recording (Philips) got a generally enthusiastic thumb up – albeit with some reservations. Those reservations had to do with clarity of sound, especially where I did not find it chilly enough in what should be the harsh clang-clang of the xylophones in the first movement. I also thought it lacking in ‘furiosity’ in the first two movements. On those accounts, I preferred Rudolf Barshai and his West German Radio Symphony Orchestra (part of their super-budget complete set on Brilliant). The Largo-Allegro with its massive build-up was Gergiev most impressive strength.

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D.Shostakovich Symphony No.4, M.Jansons / BRSyO
Sometimes, two different approaches can be genial but incompatible, but here I thought a combination of the two possible. Little did I know that it had already been issued, at about the same time. Can you say: “Hello, Mariss Jansons!”

Newly anointed to helm the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (taking over from Lorin Maazel) and the Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam (taking over from Riccardo Chailly) he recorded the Shostakovich 4th with the former band in 2004. The result is smashing – quite literally. The first movement has almost the harsh, clear and clean acoustic of the Brilliant recording while at the same time keeping a richer sound for the strings. The xylophones sound like a horde of drunken skeletons playing ghastly tunes on their exposed ribcages.

Torment, accusation, wild-eyed plowing forward are visceral at every turn of the corner in this interpretation. Come the galloping undercurrent of the Presto of the first movement at about 17 minutes and you can positively see a demented orchestra with foam at their mouth plunging fatalistically forward. Little wonder DSCH kept the symphony in the drawer after his Opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtkensk District (LINK) had been criticized and he felt (rightly, we presume) only steps removed (there’s a bad pun, if you think about it) from the Gulag.

When performed with all that anger, the biting, painful sarcasm, the futile energy that the Bavarians and Jansons put into the work, the symphony becomes an indictment of whichever regime you currently hate the most. Dimitry Shostakovich could have been interned in any country after such a delivery. But it isn't just on the ferocious side that Jansons scores. In particular his softer, the more 'lyrical' elements of the symphony come out more than with Barshai who (as indeed all Russian interpreters save Gergiev) plays out the violence throughout the entire work. With the mellow elements receiving extra care, Jansons further hightens the contrasts in this work.

The recording, not available as an SACD (this, perhaps, is Gergiev’s trump), has a wide range of dynamics and as such is not ideal if you have noise-sensitive neighbors. It was made to be listened to at high volume and cranking it up endows it with a fist-pumping quality that will put any death-metal aficionado to shame. If you have acquired the taste for Shostakovich’s musical language (say, via his Preludes and Fugues), then you will find this symphony in this version in all its glorious rawness to be simply awesome.

As clearly as this is now my favorite version of the work, the Barshai recording surprised me once again (it should not have – his cycle is uniformly excellent) in how well it held up against even the most formidable competition. Its sound may not have the depth of Jansons or Gergiev and the performance isn’t as ‘visual’ as the Bavarian RSO’s but it’s nonetheless excellent. If Gustav Mahler’s symphonies are not enough of a sarcastic onslaught for you, this is your next stop in symphonic delight. After all, Mozart for Morning Meditation and Bach for Bedtime (shiver) need to be supplemented every so often with Shostakovich for Mid-Afternoon Despair!

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