Jeremy Lee writes
Alexander Lazarev is undoubtedly one of the great Shostakovich conductors of our time. In 2010 I went to a concert of Lazarev conducting the Hong Kong Philharmonic in the 11th symphony (a work he recorded with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on Linn) and was thrilled by the raw power and excitement Lazarev got from the orchestra, and in a bout of youthful naivete and enthusiasm, wrote in my diary that Shostakovich 11 was my favorite symphony of all time. I’m not sure whether I would still agree with that assessment now, but there was no question that the performance left on me an indelible impression.
This 2014 recording of Shostakovich 4 confirms Lazarev’s stature, and then some. I suppose the direct comparison it invites is with the Inbal/TMSO recording I reviewed not long ago, so I shall compare the two. The similarities are: both feature top-flight Japanese orchestras, and the label is Exton (which implies great sound at a high price). And that’s it. Fundamentally, these are very dissimilar performances. In the Inbal review, I mentioned that the playing was so sophisticated, some authentic Russian flavor was missing. The Japan Philharmonic isn’t as technically accomplished or precise as the TMSO (though they still play extremely well), but their coarser, unblended sonority with brass to the fore actually brings to mind those Russian orchestras in their prime (minus the vulgarity).
The major difference, however, concerns the leadership on the podium. I wrote that Inbal was “always sensible and musical”. Allow me to add the word “merely” before that sentence: after hearing Lazarev, it’s clear who has put more effort and creative juices in developing a distinctive, musical vision of the work. In the first movement, Lazarev keeps proceedings moving smartly, as does Inbal, but he offers so much more contrasts in terms of tempo, dynamics, and colors, that it makes all the difference. Yet again, I have to bring up that central climax starting with the string fugue. Inbal’s is immaculately manicured, with everything perfectly in place. Lazarev, meanwhile, throws caution to the wind and whips up a terrific frenzy (and continues this manic tempo to the stomping string section that succeeds it) that kept me on the edge of my seat. You can actually hear the orchestra struggling to realize Lazarev’s extremes, which further contributes to the impression of freneticism.
Or take the sprawling last movement as an example. Lazarev’s timing is over 3 minutes longer than Inbal’s, but if anything, Lazarev offers more thrills and sardonic humor, at slightly faster tempi in the faster sections, than Inbal does. (The big trombone solo is fantastic: Kojiro Fujihara’s incisive, slightly gravelly tone and boisterous playing accentuate the music’s sardonic qualities.) Instead, Lazarev invests this extra time in the coda after the big brass chorale, taking Shostakovich’s tempo marking by faith (dotted minim = 50), and imbuing it with further bone-chilling desolation.
Last but not least, just in case you thought that Lazarev was all about the “big moments”, he is also keenly musical. Take the momentous brass chorale climax in the finale: he carefully layers the brass and woodwind textures bit by bit, thereby increasing the impact and tension to the very last statement (and collapse), and most thrillingly brings out the trombone line that first appeared at the very beginning of the movement. When I first heard that detail, the impact it had on me was absolutely devastating: what started out as a limp, unassuming idea in a solo bassoon had been blown up to become a shattering, evil behemoth of a statement in the trombones, and immediately the seemingly episodic structure snapped neatly into place for me.
This is an overwhelmingly great Shostakovich 4th, and one that has absolutely no weaknesses. It has all of Kondrashin’s whiplash excitement, with better playing and even greater musicality and sensitivity, without the bad sound. Even the price, being a CD rather than the usual (for Exton) SACD, is affordable, if only just. For me, that’s a recipe for THE definite Shostakovich 4th.
- Album name: Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4
- Performers: Alexander Lazarev (conductor), Japan Philharmonic Orchestra
- Label: Exton OVCL-00568 (1 CD)
- Sonics: Stereo DDD
- Total playing time: 1:04:24