One day in 1936, in a small concert hall manager's office, something was said that changed the course of musical history. Later that day, based on what he had been told by officials from the Communist Party and the Composer's Union, Shostakovich withdrew the score from the concert program, stopped rehearsals, and his Symphony No. 4 never saw the light of day until 25 years later. During the years following that crucial conversation, some of the greatest musical works of the 20th century were composed by him. Now, had Shostakovich been allowed to continue writing music like the 4th Symphony, or Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, would those following symphonies have been written the same way? No one will ever know for sure.

Whatever the Soviet officials saw as bad in this symphony is exactly what makes it so great. It is a long and complex work, full of extremes, from almost inaudible whispers to overwhelming outbursts of power and anger, including a collossal fugue for string groups, and one of the most profoundly enigmatic endings ever written. The heartbeat stops but the music continues...

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra have previously released great recordings of Shostakovich symphonies, under Solti amongst others, and a now famous live recording of the 7th under Bernstein. Bernard Haitink himself conducted and recorded a complete cycle for Decca many years ago. So it should come as no surprise that this present interpretation shoots right up there with the best of them. It is a well-planned, slow, methodical, take no prisoners account. Profound and mysterious in the dark, quiet passages, but then, at the other extreme, when you think the Chicago players can't play any louder, they still add a few more decibels to the moments of overbearing fury.

I have nothing but praise for this recording and cannot recommend it enough. As a bonus, it comes with a DVD titled Beyond the Score / Is Music Dangerous? which is a fascinating look into the rationale within the Soviet Union during the years surrounding the composition of this pivotal work, and sheds much needed light on the struggles facing Shostakovich during that time. One of the best new releases of September 2008.

Jean-Yves Duperron