The familiar refrain has it that Shostakovich wrote his 15 string quartets as a kind of personal diary reflecting his innermost hopes and fears, while his 15 symphonies reveal a triumphalist public face capable of pleasing Soviet officials. What then do we make of his Fourth Symphony? It is a work with the mystery, opacity and private voice of his quartets projected onto an orchestral canvas more massive and complex than any he would contemplate for the rest of his career. Shostakovich wrote the piece after being dangerously criticized by Stalin's cultural commissars for his opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk." Little wonder that once the officials caught a whiff of the Fourth Symphony in rehearsal, its premiere was canceled and the score was buried for a quarter-century, until its first performance in 1961.
Mark Elder is in town this week to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra in this strange and darkly magnificent work. Last night in Symphony Hall he led a spellbinding performance that was true to the music's violent extremes, at times searing in its intensity and at times surreally calm.
In an eloquent spoken introduction from the podium, Elder put his cards on the table, calling the piece Shostakovich's "artistic credo" and describing it as the goal to which his career would have aimed if history had not intervened. Maybe, maybe not. One should be suspicious of any teleological view that casts such a wide shadow over so many later works, suggesting that the music beyond the Fourth was implicitly a betrayal of the composer's own ideals. But one need not agree with Elder's biographic gloss in order to admire his sheer faith in this music. He led it as if it were the great Russian symphony of the 20th century. The BSO made it sound that way.
But before wandering into this enchanted orchestral forest, Elder and the BSO partnered the soloist Vadim Repin in Sibelius's Violin Concerto. Repin's playing was impressively muscular and rhapsodic, if a bit two dimensional; the orchestra under Elder could have used more definition. In retrospect, the whole affair felt like a footnote to the evening's main event.
The Fourth announces its gigantism before a single note is played. Just look at the stage teeming with activity, a swollen river of woodwinds stretching from left and right. But the music itself is far too elusive to pin down to any single scale. One moment the hall shakes in a thundering climax. Then the sound clears and a lone bassoon wanders out of the wreckage, tentative yet questing. There are melodies that turn a corner then disappear; frenzied fiddling that consumes the string section; woodwind passages in which one hears a sweet tone slowly curdle; brass fanfares dipped in acid.
In the BSO's performance, all of this came through with wonderful immediacy. Richard Svoboda's bassoon playing was one among many outstanding solo contributions. The orchestra made some of the loudest sounds I have ever heard it produce, but also pulled back to create a chilling final tableau of exceeding delicacy. Elder let the work unfold with both inexorability and surprise, reminding us that this music cannot be reduced to an expression of its dark historical moment, but neither can it leave it behind.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.