Illustration courtesy the Bettmann Archive, New York

The Philharmonic’s celebration of Dmitri Shostakovich — all 15 symphonies performed over five years, with all 15 string quartets as a welcome supplement — is now two years along. The observance may have lacked the snazzy added attractions of the orchestra’s previous Stravinsky and Schoenberg celebrations, but the L.A. Opera fell into the fortunate accident of being saddled with Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and that did the cause no harm. As pre-concert events we have had the quartets, one at a time, number by number. The numerical matchups didn’t quite work; none of the quartets Nos. 4, 5 or 6 — charming but lightweight works — cast any particular light on the serious matters within the like-numbered symphonies. On the other hand, the performance of the Fourth Symphony — knottiest and least-known of the 15 — came with program notes and a pre-concert talk by Laurel Fay, whose Shostakovich, A Life (Oxford, 2000) has been a splendid antidote to a lot of the gobbledygook that has clouded our understanding of the composer over the years. Despite his often-aired distaste for the Fifth Symphony, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s performance of the work last weekend did not spell the end of the world.

Salonen had conducted No. 6, with its imponderable slow opening movement and the inexplicable ensuing rooty-tooty, early in the season; the other two came consecutively these past two weeks. Hearing the Fourth and Fifth in close order cast some light on possible reasons for the dim view a few people entertain toward the Fifth. Yes, there are good things in the work. The scherzo is short, snappy and full of giggles. The slow movement unfolds with irresistible momentum, and the climax — which Shostakovich achieves this once without the superfluous pandemonium of big brass and drums — can lift you (meaning me) out of your seat. But Salonen’s performance, nicely controlled though it was, made me sadly aware of the bare-bones architecture of the first movement and the empty vulgarity of the finale. Every tune that comes on slow and quiet later turns up fast and loud; the affectation of seriousness in the slowdown midway though the finale is purely dull. (Artur Rodzinski’s old 78-rpm recording, the first version I owned, removed a long and sad swatch from that last movement, a considerable improvement. I also cherish a tape of a Philharmonic performance led by Kurt Sanderling from the 1980s, which offered the finale uncut but solved its problems, through its judicious choice of tempos, better than any I’ve heard.)

The Fourth, well-paced and -shaded under Salonen, came on as a revelation. Its story is well-known: The 28-year-old Shostakovich, riding high after the initial success of Lady Macbeth, was then devastated when Stalin himself saw and detested the opera. The Fourth Symphony, on the brink of its much-anticipated premiere, was ordered into nonexistence by Soviet authorities. Only a sequence of sheer luck saved the composer from the firing squad or Siberia. The Fifth Symphony was composed a year later as a kind of apologia; you could argue, in fact, that its simplistic structures were meant as a dumbing down to the level of Soviet music critics of the time. Twenty-five years would pass before the Fourth Symphony got its first hearing — in the USSR or in the outside world. It was worth the wait. Even Shostakovich, hearing its first concert performance, pronounced it his best work; he may have been right.

This is big, tough music, lasting nearly an hour. Its mood changes are violent and subject to frequent tantrums. The orchestra is huge: 20 winds, 17 brass, kitchenware up the bazooty. Laurel Fay writes about its “lavish profusion of ideas.” Amazement is in order as the music executes its wide swings from a funeral march here to a waltz medley there, to a mighty blast from brass and timpani. The layout is, let’s say, weird: two movements, lasting nearly half an hour each, framing a short and mean-tempered scherzo. “Manic, turbulent, the human fate of the bruised individual,” writes UC Berkeley’s Richard Taruskin of the work; he is haunted by the work’s “incertitude, its irreducible multivalence,” and so am I. This is music of overpowering rhetoric, the more so in those violent shifts. The architecture here is anything but bare-bones; a panoramic panoply staggers the receptors. At the end the music recedes into a deep, dark distance; after a prolonged C-minor chord sustained in the strings, the celesta sounds its distant bell-like tones as an angelic echo. (The first movement of the Fifth Symphony also ends that way, but with lesser impact.) Mahler comes to mind: the final recession into sunlight in the Third Symphony, into darkness in the Ninth. The Shostakovich Fourth needs a proper recording; the available Previn and Ormandy versions will not do. Salonen’s performance unlocked most of the magic, and it needs to be preserved.

Extraordinary concerto performances preceded each of the symphonies: Olli Mustonen with the Prokofiev Third Piano, Pieter Wispelwey with the miraculous Dvorák for cello. The Mustonen enigma persists; his affectations at the keyboard render him unwatchable. Yet you could argue that Prokofiev’s flash and dash are scored for all of Mustonen’s arm waving and the awesome accuracy of his dive-bombing onto exactly the right key every time. The watching this time, therefore, was almost as much fun as the hearing.

Wispelwey, Netherlands-born, was enlisted to replace the scheduled but ailing Truls Mørk; New York critics in the past couple of weeks had been raving over Wispelwey’s solo performances there, and well they might. The Dvorák is every cellist’s bread and butter, and every listener’s favorite weep-along, but its wonders do not pale. Every collection worth its shelf space must have its versions by Casals, du Pré, Rostropovich (maybe half a dozen), Yo-Yo . . . And yet you wait for the message in that opening down-bow on the B natural to christen the next performance; it is one of music’s greatest single notes. It was greatly played this time. So were the ensuing notes, every one.

LA Weekly