A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to catch a performance of the Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, conducted by its Music Director Franz Welser-Möst. It was a Sunday evening and (it seemed to me that) the hall was almost half empty, which was unfortunate, given the quality of the music and the renown of the conductor. The Cleveland Orchestra - which is chronicled up to 2000 in the book "The Cleveland Orchestra Story", the single best book about the rise of an orchestra that I've read to date - performed the New York premiere of let me tell you, with Barbara Hannigan (soprano), and Shostakovich's fourth symphony. The latter was of course the reason I attended.
From the program: let me tell you, by Hans Abrahamsen, "is a song cycle devised by the composer in collaboration with Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan and British writer Paul Griffiths." Griffith's novel let me tell you, published in 2008, "is an imaginary narrative as told by Ophelia using only the 481 words she is allotted in Hamlet."
Being a Shakespeare fan, I really liked the concept behind let me tell you and wanted to love it, but frankly I found it underwhelming at best. My one-word review would be: awful. I'm aware it has been widely praised by the critics, so clearly I don't pay attention to the same things critics do when they evaluate new work. The soprano sang beautifully, but the way she sang reminded me constantly of a fish under water, making bubbles that slowly rise to the surface. That is the one image I have of that work. Maybe that explains why attendance was so scarce, in spite of the Shostakovich name being usually a draw - maybe most classical music lovers knew to stay away, since on top of that Symphony No 4 is not performed nearly as often as his more popular No 5 or No 7.
But I was one of the few people that night who really, really wanted to listen to Shostakovich's 4th live. I'd never heard it performed in concert and Shostakovich had planned to premiere it in December 1936 but had to shelve it after he ran afoul of the authorities for his Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk opera (I wrote about the movie version here), so for me it symbolizes Shostakovich's incredible creativity that had to be muffled in order for him to stay alive. The symphony was only premiered in December 1961 by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra with Kirill Kondrashin conducting. In addition, the symphony was discovered in the US when the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded/performed it under Eugene Ormandy's leadership, which adds a local connection since I've spent about a decade outside Philadelphia by now.
The Cleveland Orchestra was in top form and gave a stunning performance of a long (one hour!) but mesmerizing work. The audience jumped to its feet at the end. The length of the piece also spoke in favor of live performances. If you listen to something on a recording, you can do something else or pause it if you want - you're not confronted with the stamina needed for the musicians to go through with the work without faltering from beginning to end. In a performance hall, however, you can't escape how daunting the task is and marvel at the feat happening right in front of your eyes.
We all returned to the cold, snowy evening in New York with sheer amazement at the composer's, conductor's and musicians' remarkable genius and collective talent. I feel sorry for those who missed this. Even if that entailed being put through half an hour of music sounding like a fish making bubbles, the second half of the program made it worth it. I only wish Shostakovich's 4th was programmed more often.
If you care to hear Shostakovich 4 performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, which premiered it in the US, I recommend this recording (part of a set of Shostakovich symphonies with various orchestras, with Wyung Wung Chung conducting) and that one (Eugene Ormandy conducting the 4th and the 10th - superb!) I'm not aware of a recording by the Cleveland Orchestra.
Here is the beginning, played by the London Symphony Orchestra with Valery Gergiev conducting (Gergiev also has an excellent recording of Shostakovich 4 available for purchase, recorded with the Mariinsky Orchestra). I can never get tired of those opening bars. Enjoy, and buy one of the recordings!