"Muddle instead of music": three foreboding words laden with threat and designed to destroy the reputation of a promising composer writing in the grip of the Iron Fist. Crashing in with a shrill shriek from winds and percussion, Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony is a relentless work, teetering on the edge of terror from start to finish. This colossal piece is a creation that truly tests the boundaries of even the best ensemble and should deliver glass-shattering fortes, delicate pianos and tight rhythmic passages. 

Sir Mark Elder © Benjamin Ealovega
Sir Mark Elder
© Benjamin Ealovega

That is exactly what was delivered when Manchester's Hallé took on the work at Bridgewater Hall on Saturday night under the baton of Sir Mark Elder. However, this was a performance with a difference, as the orchestra sought to embed the work in the historical and political context of the time in Beyond the Score ®. Sharing the stage with actors Samuel West, Tamzin Griffin and Robert Pickavance, the group performed to a backdrop of contemporary propaganda and videos depicting the mass industrialisation and military threat of Stalin's socialist regime.  

The year is 1936 and Shostakovich's reputation as a promising young composer has shattered overnight. Printed in Pravda – the official newspaper of the Soviet Union's Communist party – was the damning description of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: "muddle instead of music", "cacophony" and "chaos". Words carrying so much more than just a negative review, these were potential nails in the coffin of Shostakovich's career, and possibly even his life. As the composer's friends and family found themselves imprisoned, exiled, or dead, Stalin's net seemed to close in on the young composer who, instead of caving in to the regime's demand for "heroic, bright and beautiful" music, penned his Fourth Symphony – a work that would not be premiered for another 25 years.

The first half of the concert took the audience back to this reign of terror, and credit must be given to the architects of this performance, who managed to perfectly pair up video footage and still imagery with Shostakovich's iconic music, with relevant and revealing quotes from the trio of actors to really set the scene. From the threatening march of soldiers stepping in complete unison with the bowing of string players, to images of steaming, shining machinery that complemented the shrill sharpness of the wind section, this performance combined visual and audio effects to bring the work to life in a vibrant way that enabled the audience to really understand the significance of the work. As the montage drew to a close with a series of blacked-out faces, the haunting pattern of the celeste against the barely-there orchestra was enough to send a shiver up the strongest person's spine, as performers managed to capture that never-ending sense of threat.  

The second half was wholly dedicated to a straight performance of the work, where the excellence and skills of the musicians really took centre stage. Unreserved energy was evident from the start, as the performers were seen to put their all into each and every note. The dynamic range of this performance was phenomenal. Thanks to the 112 musicians on stage, the fortissimo passages of the work were astounding – the sheer noise from the stage was enough to blow you back in your seat, while the sudden drop to almost inaudible pianissimo would leave you stunned.  

Another highlight of the performance was the ensemble work of the orchestra. Demonstrating seamless dovetailing between sections, effective balancing, and an almost mechanical sense of rhythm, the overall effect was spellbinding. Colourful playing lifted the performance throughout, especially in the second movement; from the spiralling woodwind section that sounded like wintery whirlwinds of snow to the almost manic rhythmic ending that sounded like time was running out for the young Shostakovich.  

The final movement ended with some fantastic solos from the woodwind section before the music picked up tempo in the Allegro section. Stealing the show were the bassoon and trombone solos, which managed to find the perfect balance between comedy and tragedy, landing on an evocative sense of satire. Occasional glissandos and almost brash timbre drew a musical caricature of Stalin and his "heroic, bold and beautiful" musical demands, all underlined with that inevitable sense of threat as Elder kept a firm grip on the performance.  The orchestra then powers its way to another ear-shattering climax, before retreating back to nothing.

This vibrant, colourful and intense performance delivered its audience into the centre of concrete-clad Leningrad, filling you with the fear and foreboding that stalked the city's streets. The Hallé's excellent performance could not fail to keep you hooked from beginning to end, as the performers breathed life and meaning into every note of the score.

*****