Jeremy Lee writes
First and foremost, an apology for the long hiatus that has preceded this review. As the holidays commence (after a fantastically busy semester), we’ll have much more time to listen and write.
With that, let us turn our attention to Eliahu Inbal, a conductor whose recordings received international attention in the 1970s and 80s with high-profile accompaniment engagements (most notably the Chopin concertos with Arrau) and symphony cycles of Brahms, Shostakovich, Mahler, Bruckner, Scriabin, and Schumann, and dwindled in amount in the 1990s. Most of these early recordings have shown Inbal to be an astute and musical artist, if not a particularly notable force of personality. More recently, he has worked mostly in Czechia (yes, I’ve been reading the news) and Japan, assuming the chief conductorship/musical directorship of the Czech Philharmonic (from 2009 to 2012) and Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra (from 2008 to 2014) respectively. The disc under review is a live recording from 23 March 2012, presumably recorded in one take, though from the sheer quality of the recording and playing, and the complete lack of audience noise, you’d never know it.
As mentioned, Inbal recorded a Shostakovich cycle before, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra on Denon from 1990 to 1993, a generally lacklustre cycle with nary a trace of passion, excitement, or commitment. The 4th in that cycle is an unqualified nadir. It therefore gives me joy to report that this Tokyo performance is another matter entirely. First of all, in terms of playing, this remake unquestionably trumps the old one. While the VSO’s playing was technically competent, the orchestra’s thin strings, tepid woodwinds and blaring brass ultimately gave the impression of an ill-balanced second-rate orchestra trying too hard. The TMSO is on another league. Their brass is full and rich, their woodwinds are pristine, their percussion is gusty, and their string section is luscious enough to rival the Berlin Philharmonic, and all this adds up to a meaty and opulent, yet transparent, sonority. As for their ensembleship and virtuosity, just check out the playing in the crazy string fugue in the middle of the first movement, leading to the ferocious main climax–impeccably clean and clear, every note perfectly tuned and discernible, every instrument that joins the fray perfectly balanced in the overall sound, all this live and unedited, at a breathless pace–and compare it with any other recording you can think of (Haitink, Chung, Barshai, Gergiev, Kondrashin, etc.), let alone that VSO recording, and you will realise that this is orchestral playing of the very highest order. With this kind of quality of execution, I have no question that (on recordings at least) the TMSO must be ranked on a par with the very finest orchestras the world–and not just Asia–has to offer.
Does such perfect orchestral playing preclude excitement or spontaneity, or that mix of sardonic humour, eeriness and violence that Shostakovich ideally requires? In this case, not one bit. This is a highly energetic and involved reading. Inbal’s tempi are only a tad quicker in all movements this time around, but it feels much more exciting because the orchestra responds better, the climaxes are pressed harder (and boy do the brass and percussion play out), and the slower sections never lose tension. As for Inbal’s interpretation, it is a perfectly “normal” one. There’s no sudden gearshift, rounding of phrase or choice of tempo that would make one go “that was absolutely genius–why hasn’t anyone else thought of that?”, but nothing perverse or unmusical either: Inbal, as always, is being sensible and musical.
Quibbles? There are a few. If what you want is a reading that throws caution to the wind and hits you in the face with a tornado of hysteria, you will almost certainly find this reading a bit pale–Inbal and his orchestra are much too sophisticated for that. Certainly, the cultured playing means that some of that iconic Russian brashness and rawness is missing, and with that, a certain authentic Russian flavour (you’ll find that in Rozhdestvensky/USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra on Olympia, or Kondrashin/Staatskapelle Dresden on Profil). Also, Exton isn’t exactly a budget label (a new copy will set you aside at least $200HKD), and the liner notes are only in Japanese, which means that this recording probably won’t enjoy the publicity or accolades that it certainly deserves.
But I think this disc is worth every cent. It is an exciting, natural reading of a fearsome and forbidding work, whose primary attraction remains the perfect (and in this symphony, unsurpassed) playing, and it’s all capped off with unbeatable sonics that are breathtakingly realistic, yet with seemingly infinite depth in the soundstage and massive (though not excessive) dynamic range. This is the recording that convinced me about the work and led me to explore more about the work as well as the other recordings that I had sitting on my shelf, and there’s no higher praise than that.
- Album name: Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4
- Performers: Eliahu Inbal (conductor), Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra
- Label: Exton OVCL-00472 (1 SACD)
- Sonics: Stereo DDD
- Total playing time: 62:09