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National Symphony, Vasily Petrenko tackle Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony

By Robert Battey,

The National Symphony Orchestra has a tiger by the tail this week: the lengthy, bombastic, draining Fourth Symphony of Shostakovich. Although one of the Russian master’s more obscure works, it has been in the NSO repertoire for 50 years, notably under the composer’s son, and, of course, under Mstislav Rostropovich. The musicians put on a blazing performance Thursday night.

The longest symphony Shostakovich had yet attempted, it is more of a curiosity than a satisfying artistic experience. I agree entirely with the assessment of it from one quotable source: “It is — as far as form is concerned — a very imperfect, long-winded work that suffers — I’d say — from ‘grandiosomania.’ However, the score contains some parts I like.” The source was the composer, in a magazine article many years after the symphony’s composition.

So viewed purely as art, the Fourth Symphony would likely remain in the cellar of Shostakovich’s output along with its two predecessors and the meretricious Twelfth. It gets the occasional hearing, though, because of an accident of timing: Shostakovich was finishing it when his infamous denunciation by Joseph Stalin appeared in Pravda early in 1936 (his latest opera was a “farrago of chaotic, nonsensical sounds,” and the composer was branded a “bourgeois formalist”). Although Shostakovich’s life was in danger, the symphony was slated for a premiere and rehearsed, but the composer withdrew it, and it languished for a quarter-century.

It is tempting to construct a narrative about the work as a bold, dazzling leap into fresh artistic realms from which Shostakovich was violently yanked back by a faceless, malevolent bureaucracy, but realities intrude. However dire his political/artistic standing was in 1936, the wild acclaim that followed his Fifth Symphony the next year more than restored it, and Shostakovich soon resumed his place as one of the Soviet Union’s most decorated artists. Had he had confidence in the Fourth, he could have easily arranged for a performance, but he understood its limitations.

And compared with the Fifth, they are manifest. While all the fingerprints are there — the grim marches, the keening woodwind soliloquies, the frantic, racing string passages, the ironic waltzes — much of the musical material is undistinguished, and it has none of the organic construction of its successor, where everything in the sprawling first movement can be traced back to the first eight bars. There are thematic connections throughout the Fourth, of course, but there are also lengthy passages of repetitive note-spinning and meandering solos that bear little relation to anything else.

Still, Shostakovich was a great composer, and this ungainly piece does deserve its occasional moment, if only to more fully fill out our picture of its creator. Guest conductor Vasily Petrenko does not have a terribly expressive stick, but he knew the piece well and handled its many meter and tempo changes with authority.

Friday night’s performance will feature a dramatic “Beyond the Score” presentation by Michael Boudewyns. Thursday night’s began with the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto performed by young Armenian artist Sergey Khachatryan (so will Saturday’s performance).

He is a remarkably fluent player whose musical instincts are marred by immaturity. His many indulgences in the piece — the halting reverie at the beginning, the excessive sighing in the Canzonetta, the cartoonishly fast tempo in the finale (most of the notes inaudible) — all bespoke a narcissism that will surely fade as he takes his artistic responsibilities more seriously. Intonation was good, although not stellar, and the tone was often wiry, never relaxing into a rich, full bouquet. But Khachatryan does have the goods for a major career, and his performance brought the house down. The encore was from Ysaye’s Sonata No. 2.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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