Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 4
Semyon Bychkov, cond; West German RSO Cologne
AVIE 2114 (Hybrid multichannel SACD: 64:21)
Semyon Bychkov’s recording of Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony (
30:3) was striking because its fast tempos and lean instrumental textures proved that there was more than one way to interpret the highly cinematic piece. With this new SACD of the Fourth Symphony, he maintains the lean and relatively light orchestral texture, but his
tempos are slower than the principal non-Russian competing versions by Ormandy (Sony) and Previn (EMI). Ormandy gave the American premiere of the Fourth Symphony in 1963, and his Columbia recording is still probably the best. Bychkov’s Cologne orchestra cannot approach the dazzling virtuosity and lustrous sheen of the Philadelphia Orchestra at the time of their first recording of the work, but then, who can? All you need to do is listen slack-jawed to the first movement presto string fugato or the luscious spectral beauty of the
ending to appreciate that inevitable reality. Having said that, Bychkov’s Cologne orchestra has a raw edge that is appropriate for Shostakovich, and his interpretation is individual enough to again be special.
The most striking aspect of Bychkov’s reading is its lightness of touch in the context of tempos that are not particularly slow overall, but are so in certain key places to telling effect. That first movement string fugato is suitably manic, but does not have the weightiness that Ormandy’s unparalleled strings possess. The slowly paced solo winds and violins at the end of the first movement are haunting and unsettling. The soft percussion instruments at the end of the second movement are so effectively placed at the rear-left of the orchestra that they achieve an otherworldly effect. The Mahlerian dirge opening the third movement is again taken slowly, but Bychkov reaches a splendid climax by refusing to deviate from his basic tempo. The various solo wind and brass effects in the middle of the third movement lack the cutting edge that Ormandy and the Philadelphians throw off with ease. Bychkov saves the best for last. The massive drum-driven climax is shattering because of its razor-sharp clarity. It is followed by the remarkably orchestrated pianissimo finale with its sliding wind chords, throbbing low strings, distant rolling drums, and solo trumpet and celesta, all fading to an ambiguous silence that is as beautiful as it is threatening. Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra produced a simply ravishing sound with every detail preserved by the rich but transparent sound. Bychkov’s amazingly slow tempo ratchets up the tension even more, but without the sonic richness. The SACD sound is undeniably pretty aggressive on the high end, but that is Shostakovich, plain and simple. A relatively soft low midrange and lack of bass emphasize analytical clarity over warmth and weight. The sound clearly contributes to the ultimate transparency of Bychkov’s interpretation. Dynamic range is massive. This is an excellent performance that is a valid alternative to Ormandy’s textural richness and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s unexcelled virtuosity. With Ormandy and Bychkov you will hear a wide interpretive scope applied to this masterful work. The more I hear it, the more I have come to believe that, along with the Eighth and the Tenth, the Fourth is one of Shostakovich’s greatest symphonies.
FANFARE: Arthur Lintgen
This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 4 in C minor, Op. 43 by Dmitri Shostakovich
Cologne West German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1935-1936; USSR
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