Tag Archives: Maki Namekawa

Shostakovich, Symphony No. 4; Шостакович Симфония № 4



I have known Shostakovich’s Symphony No 4 for a long time. I bought the LP of the first American performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy. I listened once or twice; did not really get into the work.

I have been listening to it again and finally appreciate it fully. This includes both the orchestral version and a performance of the symphony, arranged for two pianos, by Maki Namekawa and Dennis Russell Davies. I saw a live performance by Namekawa and Davies at the Morgan Library in New York recently. I purchased the CD. I highly recommend it.

The third (final) movement in the recorded piano version lasts over 30 minutes. It’s amazing.




The manuscript score for the Fourth Symphony was lost during World War II. Using the orchestral parts that survived from the 1936 rehearsals, Shostakovich had a two-piano version published in an edition of 300 copies in Moscow in 1946. Shostakovich began considering a performance only after Stalin’s death in 1953 changed the cultural climate in the Soviet Union. He undertook no revisions.

Conductor Kirill Kondrashin led the premiere of the orchestral version on December 30, 1961 with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. The first performance outside the USSR took place at the 1962 Edinburgh Festival with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Gennady Rozhdestvensky.

The symphony is strongly influenced by Gustav Mahler, whose music Shostakovich had been closely studying with Ivan Sollertinsky during the preceding ten years. (Friends remembered seeing Mahler’s Seventh Symphony on Shostakovich’s piano at that time.) The duration, the size of the orchestra, the style and range of orchestration, and the recurrent use of “banal” melodic material juxtaposed with more high-minded, even “intellectual” material, all come from Mahler.



From the album notes for the piano version (Supertrain Records):

In the mid-1930s Dmitri Shostakovich was on top of the world artistically. In one fell swoop that all changed when his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was condemned in the pages of Pravda, a review likely penned by Stalin himself.* So it came as no surprise that at this time his next major work, his Fourth Symphony, was withdrawn from performance after a number of rehearsals. It was deemed simply too risky and provocative to perform it.

The symphony, a true masterwork and Shostakovich s first large format purely instrumental symphony, lay in obscurity, unperformed for more than a quarter century until after Stalin s death. The original score to Symphony No. 4 was lost and remains unfound. It was only by virtue of having the original orchestral parts from rehearsals and this arrangement for two pianos that Shostakovich made to perform the piece in private for his friends, that the work was able to be reconstructed.

This masterful performance by pianists Maki Namekawa and Dennis Russell Davies brings to light the majesty of this underappreciated work. It is part of a series of recordings the duo has made to explore the musical essence of works more often known in their original versions.

*I wonder if this was true.



Reviews (of the Namekawa-Davies CD), Amazon.com

Rachmaninov penned two formats of his Symphonic Dances: full orchestra and dual pianos. Shostakovich fortunately did likewise for his Symphony No. 4 of 1936 because the piano score survived Stalin and World War II while the complete orchestral score was lost. Indeed, other than the privately held printed copies of the piano version, only various orchestral parts for the rehearsal were located. (The work was obliged to be withdrawn from concert performance, as the abstract and angry, gloomy symphony would have displeased Soviet authorities, and it was officially banned in 1948.) The reconstructed orchestration eventually had its debut in 1961 in Moscow. This two-piano arrangement offers a new perspective to the Symphony; its different quality of sound allows increased focus on developmental detail and its raw emotional power. Its three movements of 72 minutes begins with Shostakovich phrasing and rhythm already established in his earlier patriotic symphonies. This first extended section goes through an exploration of dark corners of society. The grand sweep and introspective journey of Mahler was much on his mind as Shostakovich prepared the work, but his was filled with angst and not a hint of eventual glory or divine surrender. (His popular extroverted Symphony No. 5 redeemed his political reputation.) The even longer third movement, following a funeral march, is resolute with a pounding series of triplet chords that lead to further somewhat militaristic adventures, with trumpet calls. The positive and defiant dancing spirit continues to a climax of sustained bell-like chords as storm waves upon cliffs. The Shadow soon engulfs the proponent as the symphony softens and fades. The pianists for this important release are conductor Dennis Russell Davies and his wife Maki Namekawa, who deliver a gripping performance. The listener will hear Shostakovich with new ears.

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This piano duo captures all the intensity, renegade spirit, and cumulative power of this great work.

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It’s amazing how two pianos can sound so symphonic. It genuinely channeled the many orchestral versions I’ve heard. You can hear Shostakovich’s compositional genius at work even in this (two) piano “reduction.”

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Shostakovich dealt with a great deal of adversity as a result of wars, the revolution, and Stalinism. That is sad but it makes for some really amazing stories. So it is with this symphony.

It was composed in 1936 and would mark the entry of more post-romantic elements into the composer’s work which gives it a Mahler-like cast at times. Unfortunately the politics resulted in the composer withdrawing the symphony. During WWII the score was lost and reconstructed from surviving orchestral parts and the present two piano transcription by the composer. The world premiere occurred in 1961 under Kiril Kondrashin.

It is the two piano “reduction” which is featured here. Reduction refers to the transcription of the piece for two pianos but the grand symphonic nature shines through with amazing lucidity. Of course this is as much due to the skill of the transcription but also of the artists. If you have never heard a great transcription this will amaze you.

Davies and Namekawa have established quite a name for themselves as a duo piano team. Davies, the long established conductor and his life partner Namekawa, herself a dazzling pianist have collaborated for some time now as a duo and this recording is testament to what they can do. Here they joyfully share their interests and insights on this masterpiece. Even if you have and know the orchestral version you will want to hear this.

There are three movements here. The outer movements are long extended compositions with a small(but amazing) interlude in between. This is not the Shostakovich of the famed fifth h symphony. Rather it is a sort of transitional piece between the student work of the first symphony and the social realism of the second and third symphonies. While deeply intelligent the work has no intended program and one could almost pass this off stylistically as a lost Mahler work.

Fear not, though, the composer’s fingerprint is here. After all this is his fourth essay in the symphony genre. Unfortunately a perfect storm of politics conspired to almost destroy this work. Fortunately both this reduction and the reconstruction make the work available. It is especially curious for the Shostakovich enthusiast to listen to this work and imagine the care that must have been taken to avoid being associated with non-state-approved music. It’s a good example of how politics places additional meaning on a piece of music that originally had none.


posted by Roger W. Smith

   February 2022