Shostakovich's Devastating Impact

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975) was hardly the first composer to run headfirst into opposition from political authorities. In his case, however, the pushback was so extreme that it affected everything he wrote thereafter.

In early 1936, after the style and subject matter of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk clashed with the so-called proletarian aesthetic of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin (1878–1953), Shostakovich was denounced by the official state newspaper, Pravda. From then on, his symphonies reflected either his defiance of decades of Socialist realism, or attempts to appease the authorities while still speaking his truth.

There's no better way to understand Shostakovich's despair and anger than to listen to his Symphony 4 in two vastly different recordings: one by Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra, which also includes Symphony 10 (2 SACD/CDs, DSD download, Pentatone PTC 5186647); the other by Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, paired with Symphony 11 (2 CDs, 24-bit/96kHz download, Deutsche Grammophon 002859502).


It's hard to reconcile the energy of Symphony 4, its composition roughly contemporaneous with the premiere of Lady Macbeth, with Pletnev's performance. Whether because of fears of persecution or pressure from the party-line Union of Soviet Composers, Shostakovich withheld this extremely dissonant and complex symphony until well after Stalin's death. When at last it was premiered, in 1962, audiences heard a long, nightmarish first movement that begins with a cry of alarm, and sounds as if an unstoppable, crushing weight has descended on the listener. After a curiously bizarre middle-movement scherzo, the final movement's relentlessness suggests that the human spirit itself has been crushed. Uplifting it is not.

Pletnev's opening march feels like a slog. The music demands a faster pace, but Pletnev holds back. While he may be trying to convey Shostakovich's nearly unbearable dismay at what had come down on both him and the Russian people, his beautiful-sounding RNO never fully captures the composer's cry. The contrast with Nelsons's BSO performance—his first movement is more than 9:30 shorter, and his orchestra never sounds as incongruously smooth and lush as Pletnev's—is vast. There is palpable fury in this reading by Nelsons, whose escalating intensity is breathtaking. DG's sound may not be as smooth as Pentatone's, but the recording knocks you over with its huge, explosive bass and blaring brass. Nelsons's conclusion is memorably iridescent and haunting.


Nelsons's pairing, Symphony 11, is an equal triumph. Subtitled The Year 1905, this programmatic work depicts the Bloody Sunday massacre of unarmed citizens in St. Petersburg who, led by a priest, were carrying a protest petition to Czar Nicholas II when they were mown down by the Czar's Cossack troops. After the first movement, The Palace Square, sets the stage, the ensuing bloodbath, The 9th of January, overwhelms with its power and devastation. Following the third-movement funeral march, In Memoriam, the symphony concludes with The Tocsin, as even more graphic musical depictions of violence warn of the Russian Revolution to come.

Nelsons nails Shostakovich's retelling of events in aural cinéma-vérité. The wide soundstage, set back from the speakers, convincingly conveys the depth and boundaries of Boston Symphony Hall's shoebox acoustic as explosion after explosion depicts the schisms that led to the 1917 Revolution.

Like Pletnev's recording of Symphony 4, his Symphony 10 leaves something to be desired. In this music written shortly after Stalin's death, Pletnev convincingly conveys the pain of the Russian people and of Shostakovich under Stalin's rule, and the continuing impact of totalitarian subjugation of the Russian psyche. Nonetheless, after Nelsons's all-out performances, we're left with the sense that even more could have been said.

The pain and fury that Pletnev shortchanges abounds in the most recent release in this survey, Gianandrea Noseda's superb rendition of Symphony 8 with the London Symphony Orchestra (SACD/CD, DSD download, LSO Live LSO0822). Recorded in DSD256, and auditioned in advance DSD64 files, this powerhouse performance fully unleashes the emotions that Shostakovich encapsulated in musical notation.


When it premiered, in 1944, Symphony 8 stunned the Russian authorities. The shocking impact of this music's pessimism felt like a smack in the face to a struggling country that lost 27 million people in WW II—so much so that the symphony was condemned for its "unhealthy individualism," and remained virtually unplayed in the USSR for many years.

Noseda holds nothing back, his first movement depicting terrible sadness and suffering. Thanks to superior engineering and conducting, the recording's huge dynamic range and concomitant sense of depth enhance the abilities of conductor and orchestra to translate orchestral color into feeling. The performance leaves the mouth agape as it builds to a huge explosion, then collapses into post-annihilation exhaustion.

The second movement may scamper along, but it concludes with a feeling of profound emptiness. Next comes the unforgettable third movement, whose seemingly ceaseless march is punctuated by cries and, eventually, another huge explosion. When its furious pace cedes to depression, we feel it deeply. The Eighth may end on a note of consolation, but everything preceding its closing bars offers anything but. Anyone who is alarmed by the resurgence of fascism and racial divisions worldwide will find their feelings echoed in this tremendous performance.

monetschemist's picture

Jason, thanks for this epic review. I'm not (yet, anyway) a Shostakovich fan but I feel that with the guidance you offer here I could get inside these works and try to visualize their context and meaning. That's really valuable (to me at least), so thanks again!

And the question - when you review music like this, I'm curious as to whether you research the context first before listening, or whether you listen, review the context, listen again, or what? It seems to me your technique, whatever it is, might be generally applied to increase the understanding and enjoyment of the listening experience.

Thanks again!

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

First of all, thank you. I am always touched and gratified when I learn that my reviews have served to open a door for someone. That is something I always hope for.

Shostakovich's music is both exhilarating and devastating. It's especially interesting to hear some of the lighter and joyful music he wrote prior to the crackdown, e.g. the Jazz Suites or his wonderful arrangement of "Tea for Two," and then realize how the government crackdown shaped his course as a composer.

A musicologist I am not. But I've been reading liner notes - you know, the classical recording equivalent of a product manual - and attending concerts for a long, long time. I often know what I don't know - not always, I confess, but most of the time - so I stick with what I'm certain of. But beyond background knowledge, the other thing I do is simply sit in silence and open my pores to what composers pour forth. I allow their music to take me, if take me it will. If it doesn't take me - the music of Bruckner is a case in point - I don't tend to review it. But if it does seize me, on one or more levels including the gut raw physical (as so much good rock does) and the intellectual, I proceed.

Hide his emotions, Shostakovich does not. My husband had never heard the 4th symphony before, but when we attended Andris Nelsons and the BSO's performance of the symphony at Philharmonie de Paris this past Seotember, he totally got what the music is saying. It can be quite devastating when you get Shostakovich's message for the first time.

Some months back I reviewed one of Shostakovich's String Quartets - his final quartet - on the Danish String Quartet's recording, Prism. It is as emotionally empty as it gets. The string quartets were the pieces where the man shared his most private and uncensored thoughts. Take a listen to that one, and you'll hear where he ended up.

Issues of freedom are of deep concern to me. I'm an only Jewish child whose grandparents fled Eastern Europe, and I'm deeply moved by music that comes out of struggles for political, spiritual, physical, and mental freedom. I'm also drawn to music that challenges and expands the mind, rather than simply settling for the norm. But since I'm equally attracted to beauty in all its manifestations, I listen to artistry that touches me on aesthetic grounds. I'm a sucker for music that touches my heart.

I think you'll find all of that in Shostakovich.

pbarach's picture

The first time I heard the 4th was when I heard just the end of it on a BBC Symphony YouTube video conducted by Rozhdestvensky:

I found this incredibly moving, and eventually I bought the DVD. Fortunately, the full performance (unfortunately audio-only) is now on YouTube; not to be missed:

markmax's picture

Jason, Thanks for a wonderful , interesting review. I found your comments here to monetschemist to be especially intriguing and thoughtful. I've been a huge Shostakovich fan for close to 20 years and find his music and life struggle to be very moving. How to create and express art in the face of tyranny and titanic struggle fascinate . I really enjoyed Robert Greenberg's Great courses course on Shostakovich . Perhaps you would enjoy it as well . Thanks again for a terrific review and comment !

Long-time listener's picture

I agree that Nelsons' reading of the 4th, and the Deutsche Grammophon recording, make for a captivating experience. Right up to the very end -- but the very end is where Nelsons lets us down a little. His very exaggerated slowing of the tempo in the final measures is meant to heighten the mood of somber, tense mystery, but to me it seems instead to only dissipate the concentration and intensity of those passages -- passages I look forward to throughout the entire symphony.

For what it's worth, my favorite reading has always been Myung-Whun Chung conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, also on Deutsche Grammophon. Beautifully played and recorded, and more successful in those final pages, I think.

foxhall's picture

The initial hook that turned me into an orchestral music and Shostakovich fan began in the early 1990's when I heard the 8th symphony on WFMT Chicago. I remember exactly where I was on the college campus, the host's name and that it was Solti/CSO (Decca).

It changed me.

I own nearly 100 recordings of Shostakovich symphonies and had a shocking (amazing) experience hearing/seeing Vladimir Ashkenazy conduct the 10th symphony.

While I like the all the recent Shostakovich DG recordings with Nelsons, I am still completely captivated by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic/Vasily Petrenko cycle. I can't seem to return to other recordings years after this was released.

Regarding Mikhail Pletnev, his recording of Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony (Virgin Classics) with the RNO, in my mind, was without rival until Teodor Currentzis/MusicAeterna released the 6th which I learned about right here from JVS.

Long-time listener's picture

That Solti 8th remains a great one, regardless of any new ones that have come out since. You had a great start to your Shostakovich listening! I've also found Haitink's 8th, Rostropovich's LSO 8th, and Kitajenko's to be great ones. I was less happy with Petrenko's, which seemed more emotionally detached, light, and cool to me.

Pletnev is a kind of inconsistent conductor, and JVS here mentioned his slow tempos in Shostakovich. I too like his Tchaikovsky, and in at least one case his slow tempos have proved revelatory -- that word is used too often, but it is true here. In the Tchaikovsky 1st, which Tchaikovsky subtitled "Winter Dreams," many conductors adopt a zippy, bouncy tempo for the first movement, but only Pletnev seems to have had the insight to play it at a slower tempo that, at last, brings out the sense of reveries and dreams. Once you've heard his version, it becomes truly puzzling why other conductors do what they do -- except that sometimes, "tradition" takes hold. It's always been played that way, so we'll keep playing it that way...

foxhall's picture

Haitink's 8th is so good.

Agree completely about Tchaikovsky's first symphony. It can be such a bore or an immersive visual story for me. Pletnev's is great and I think Jansons/Oslo is remarkable even if tempos are maybe too brisk.

volvic's picture

And also agree on the Solti version. Have always come back to Karajan's Tchaikovsky 1 from the 70's. I think HVK was an outstanding Tchaikovsky conductor.

burnspbesq's picture

Fully agree with you re the Petrenko cycle, but my single favorite recording of any Shostakovich work continues to be the Krause/Philadephia/Ormandy recording of Symphony No. 13. That was my way in.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture


San Francisco, CA – January 9, 2019 – Other Minds continues its 2018-2019 season on Sunday, February 10, 4:00 p.m. at Taube Atrium Theater in San Francisco, with a double header of two piano arrangements by Shostakovich including the West Coast Premiere of his own Symphony No. 4 and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. The performance features frequent duo collaborators Maki Namekawa and Dennis Russell Davies and follows their February album release of Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4 on Supertrain Records.

The two piano arrangement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 is still largely unknown today. Written in 1936, the original orchestral version was mired in scandal following Stalin’s denouncement of Lady Mcbeth of the Mtsensk District two years prior. The exact details are shrouded in mystery but following its withdrawal, the orchestral score went missing during World War II and remains undiscovered to this day. It was eventually reconstructed from the individual orchestral parts and the composer’s two piano arrangement, of which only 300 copies were printed, and finally received its orchestral premiere in 1961. Shostakovich and Boris Tishchenko performed the two piano arrangement one-year prior, marking the first time that it had been heard publicly in over a quarter of a century. It was not until 2000 that the piece was officially published.

On February 8, Maki Namekawa and Dennis Russell Davies will release Symphony No. 4 on Supertrain Records label ahead of their San Francisco performance of this work. This will be just the second time the work has been recorded and the only recording currently available. Supertrain Records was founded in 2018 by Richard Guérin, label manager of Philip Glass’s Orange Mountain Music, and serves to unearth neglected masterpieces for wider appreciation. Recent releases include Bolcom: Twelve Etudes featuring pianist and composer William Bolcom; Formal Abandon featuring pianist Michael Riesman; and Drive featuring pianist, percussionist and composer Mick Rossi.

The Namekawa-Davies Duo has been performing together for over fifteen years with appearances at the Piano Festival Ruhr in Germany, Ars Electronica Festival Linz, Lincoln Center Festival, and Ravenna Festival. This appearance will mark their fourth with Other Minds, following their most recent performance of works by Philip Glass in 2017. The upcoming album release of Dmitri Shostakovich Symphony No. 4 adds to an extensive recorded repertory including Philip Glass’s Four Movements for Two Pianos and the piano four-hand versions of Stravinksy’s The Rite of Spring, Firebird and Petrouchka. In recognition for their lasting contribution to the two piano repertory, they were awarded the Piano Festival Ruhr Prize in 2016.

Tickets are $40 and can be purchased online through http://www.brownpapertickets. $25 student tickets can be purchased with valid student ID.

For further information on Other Minds, please visit Media contacts are listed at the end of the release.


Other Minds Presents
Two Piano Works of Shostakovich & Stravinsky
Sunday, February 10, 2019, 4:00 p.m.
Taube Atrium Theater, 401 Van Ness Ave, San Francisco

Maki Namekawa, piano
Dennis Russell Davies, piano

Igor Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms, arr. by Shostakovich
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4, arr. by Shostakovich

Founded in 1992, Other Minds is a leading proponent for new and experimental music in all its forms, bringing together artists and audiences of diverse traditions, generations and cultural backgrounds. By fostering cross-cultural exchange and creative dialogue, and by encouraging exploration of areas in new music seldom touched upon by mainstream music institutions, OM is committed to expanding and reshaping the definition of what constitutes “serious music.” From festival concerts, weekly radio broadcasts, and the commissioning of new works, to producing and releasing CDs, to archival preservation of thousands of concerts and composer interviews (which OM distributes free on the internet), OM has become one of the world’s major conservators of new music’s ecology.

Maki Namekawa is a leading figure among today’s pianists, bringing to audiences’ attention contemporary music by international composers. As a soloist and a chamber musician equally at home in classical and repertoire of our time, she performs regularly at international venues such as Suntory Hall Tokyo, Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center New York, Davies Symphony Hall San Francisco, Barbican Center and Cadogan Hall London, Cité de la Musique Paris, Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Salzburg Festival, Ars Electronica Linz, Musik-Biennale Berlin, Eclat Festival Stuttgart, Rheingau Music Festival and Ruhr Piano Festival.

Maki Namekawa records and performs frequently for major radio networks in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and France. Orchestra engagements include Royal Concertgebouw Orkest Amsterdam, Münchner Philharmoniker, Bamberger Symphoniker, Dresdner Philharmonie, Bruckner Orchester Linz, American Composers Orchestra, and Seattle Symphony.

The year 2018 will mark 49 seasons that Davies has held music directorships of prestigious international orchestras, while frequently guest conducting with major orchestras and opera companies worldwide. As Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Bruckner Orchester Linz and of the Linz Opera, he presided over the much-anticipated opening of the new Linz Opera house in April 2013, conducting the world premiere of Philip Glass’s opera, The Lost, commissioned for the occasion. He has served as Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Basel Symphony Orchestra; Chief Conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra, Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, and Beethovenhalle Orchestra; and as Music Director of the Orchestre Français des Jeunes, Norwalk Symphony Orchestra, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Stuttgart State Opera, Bonn Opera, International Beethoven Festival, and the Cabrillo Music Festival (Santa Cruz, CA). He also was Principal Conductor/Classical Music Program Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.

As conductor and pianist, Mr. Davies has released over 80 recordings, earning numerous awards. These include the complete symphonies of Bruckner, Haydn, Honegger and Glass, as well as Zemlinsky’s piano arrangements for four hands of Beethoven’s Fidelio and Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte with wife and duo partner Maki Namekawa.

Dennis Russell Davies was born in Toledo (Ohio) and graduated from The Juilliard School. In 2009, he was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in 2014 the French Ministry of Culture appointed him Commandeur des Arts et Lettres, and in 2017 Davies received the Österreichische Ehrenkreuz für Wissenschaft und Kunst 1. Klasse from the Austrian government.

Allen Fant's picture

Excellent review- JVS.
Shostakovich understood the inherent downturn of Socialism. Liberty and Freedom must be protected across every front. His music reflects this logic. Others could take a page from his book.