Shostakovich: Symphonies 4 and 11 (DG)
★★★★ (out of five)
Two problematic symphonies by a tortured composer are despatched by the Boston Symphony and its Latvian conductor with near-nonchalance.
The 4th, withheld by the composer for a quarter of a century after Stalin’s attack on Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, is ultra-Mahlerian in its orchestration and ironies and utterly daring in its refusal to toe the party line of relentless positivism. The key to the composer’s intentions eludes many conductors. Andris Nelsons adopts a kind of Baltic neutrality in downplaying the score’s emotional extremes in the hope he won’t get mauled by the Russian bear. It’s a fine performance, lacking only the edge of recklessness.
The 11th is another matter, a revelation. Named ‘the year 1905’ after the first Russian revolution and intended to keep the commissars off the composer’s back, the symphony is widely misunderstood as his acquiescence to the posy-Stalin regime, when it was nothing of the sort. By taking the opening Adagio at a snail’s pace, Nelsons opens up the inner textures to expose trepidation in place of celebration, private humanity ahead of political bluster. Survival is the highest moral imperative. The Bostoners play as fast or slow, loud or soft, as Nelsons directs, and with terrifying precision. This may be the finest 11th symphony on record. Strike that: it is.