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Tugan Sokhiev leads the massive Fourth Symphony by Shostakovich

Tugan Sokhiev, who conducted The Philadelphia Orchestra in an all-Russian program of Borodin, Prokofiev, and Tchaikovsky during the 2022/2023 season.
Patrice Nin
Tugan Sokhiev, who guest-conducted The Philadelphia Orchestra in a program of Shostakovich and Britten in a concert from the 2023-24 season.

Join us on Sunday, July 7 at 1 p.m. on WRTI 90.1 and Monday, July 8 at 7 p.m. on WRTI HD-2 as The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert brings you the Symphony No. 4 in C Minor by Dmitri Shostakovich, plus the Simple Symphony for strings by Benjamin Britten and Canzon septimi toni for two brass choirs by Giovanni Gabrieli. Guest conductor Tugan Sokhiev is on the podium.

Gabrieli’s Canzon opens the program with a Renaissance-era flourish. In the late 16th century, the city-state of Venice was enjoying an especially rich flowering of art, music, and architecture. Its focus was the magnificent cathedral of San Marco, whose very structure and acoustics shaped the music of that time and place. Singers and musicians situated in balconies on both sides of the interior would answer one another in grand antiphonal works fashioned by composers like Gabrieli, who directed the music at San Marco for two decades. Canzon septimi toni, scored for two choirs of trumpets and trombones, is one of the most famous instrumental examples of this antiphonal style.

Then the strings have their turn, playing the Simple Symphony by Benjamin Britten. At the grand old age of 20, Britten was asked to write an orchestral work. Feeling a little short on melodic inspiration, he turned to tunes he had composed when about 10 years old. These provided the impetus for a short symphony in four movements. The Simple Symphony was Britten’s first orchestral work to be performed. He conducted its premiere in 1934 by a mostly amateur ensemble – which was appropriate, as he designed the work to be playable by school orchestras, calling it “a dear little school suite for strings.”

This performance concludes with the Symphony No. 4 in C Minor by Dmitri Shostakovich, composed during an especially difficult period for the composer. As 1935 gave way to 1936, Shostakovich was riding a decade-long wave of success that began when his First Symphony made him a star of the international scene at age 19. Audiences and critics loved his music. So, it appeared, did the government authorities. But the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin was a dangerous place for any artist to see too much success. And Stalin himself probably precipitated the fall from grace that plagued Shostakovich throughout 1936 and most of 1937. It began with his innovative opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which had been a popular and critical success when it premiered two years earlier. The Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow revived the opera in January 1936. Stalin himself attended a performance of the new production. And he left before the end–not a good sign. Mere days later, an anonymous critic lambasted the opera in print. The composer’s rising star would now plunge.

Shostakovich was aware of Stalinist show trials and purges. He knew artists who had been imprisoned or worse. He must have wondered whether, or when, he might meet the same fate. And yet he could not stop writing, even in this perilous time. As he remarked to a friend: “If they cut off both my hands, I will compose music anyway, holding the pen in my teeth.” And compose he did, throughout nearly two gut-wrenching years of uncertainty. Among other works, he finished his weighty Fourth Symphony in preparation for a scheduled premiere, only to have the performance canceled soon after rehearsals began. It would not be performed publicly for another 25 years, even though the composer was restored to official favor late in 1937 with the premiere of his more crowd-pleasing Fifth Symphony.

When this Shostakovich Fourth Symphony finally received its premiere in 1961, it scored a great success. The work was soon taken up internationally, and the Philadelphia Orchestra gave its American premiere in 1963, with Eugene Ormandy on the podium.

PROGRAM:

Gabrieli: Canzon septimi toni

Britten: Simple Symphony

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 43

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Tugan Sokhiev, conductor

WRTI PRODUCTION TEAM:

Melinda Whiting: Host

Alex Ariff: Senior Producer

Joseph Patti: Broadcast Engineer

Listen to The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert broadcasts every Sunday at 1 p.m. on WRTI 90.1, streaming at WRTI.org, on the WRTI mobile app, and on your smart speaker. Listen again on Mondays at 7 p.m. on WRTI HD-2. Listen for up to two weeks after broadcast on WRTI Replay, accessible from the WRTI homepage (look for Listen to The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert On Demand).