Shostakovich’s 4th Symphony is unlike any of his other 14 works in this genre. To begin with, it calls for about 125 musicians. The demands on the players are extraordinary. Though it has only three movements, it typically takes more than an hour to perform.

It was written in 1936 and was scheduled to be performed in December of that year. But after the composer was denounced by Pravda because of the regime’s dissatisfaction with his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk the symphony was withdrawn. Shostakovich likely feared for his life if the work appeared in 1936, so far was it from socialist realism which was the order of the day. Because of this fear he changed the way he composed for the rest of his life. The 4th Symphony is a stylistic dead end for the composer.

This work was not performed until 25 years later when Stalin was safely dead. Kirill Kondrashin led the first performance with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. The score of the symphony had been lost during the war. It was reconstructed from the orchestral parts by the librarian of the Leningrad Philharmonic which was the orchestra originally intended to first play it.

During the time of this symphony’s composition, Shostakovich was strongly influenced by Mahler – particularly the 6th and 7th symphonies. The intermixing of the banal with the profound is strongly Mahlerian, although the sound of this symphony is not at all like that of the earlier Austrian composer. The 4th Symphony is a rambling work that sometimes resembles a gigantic doodle constructed by a genius.

DVD 3 of Valery Gergiev’s survey of all the Shostakovich symphonies and concertos starts with the 4th symphony. Gergiev in his introduction to the work remarks on its intensely tragic nature and how he is so overwhelmed at its conclusion that he would rather there be no applause. The video excerpt below presents the last few minutes of the piece. The Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater is at full cry. A musical peroration seems to be headed for for a titanic conclusion when a coda of almost silence ends the symphony in a mood of bleak despair. The music, accentuated by a celesta, takes us to the outermost galaxy of the universe with no promise of return.

This symphony is one of the greatest by any composer. Its dearth of performance is not due to a deficit of merit, but rather is the consequence of its size and demand on both the players and the orchestra’s budget. But should you be in the vicinity of a live performance, do not miss it.