Some music quickly drifts free of its history, the details of commissions and premieres the stuff of learned program notes and pre-concert lectures. Other works carry the moment of their birth like a permanent shadow.
Stalin’s terror was in the air and Shostakovich was not yet 30 when he received the first dangerous condemnation of his artistic path, as published in a now notorious Pravda editorial entitled “Muddle Instead of Music.” It was the first blow in a lifelong cat-and-mouse game with the Soviet regime. We know the images of the older Shostakovich, hiding behind spectacles as thick as plate glass and music sheathed in double-meanings.
And yet before Shostakovich publicly atoned for his aesthetic sins by writing the Fifth Symphony, he doubled-down on his iconoclastic brilliance by composing the Fourth, a score of beautiful ferocity and unmistakable defiance. “If they cut off both hands,” he told a friend around this time, “I will compose music anyway holding the pen in my teeth.” After its completion in 1936, the work was rehearsed but a performance in that climate would have been unwise and potentially deadly. The premiere did not occur until 1961.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra had programmed the Fourth only twice since then, until Thursday night, when the Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski made his debut and, with cold-eyed precision and not a single gesture wasted, led the orchestra in a devastating performance. It is almost unthinkable that music of such lacerating power sat unperformed for 25 years after its creation, its thunder unheard. Yet Jurowski made it seem as if that thunder had instead been silently accumulating, seeping into every note and strange silence of this arresting score, a kind of surrealist diary of the soul.
The piece calls for an enormous orchestra, and the Symphony Hall stage was expanded to accommodate the enlarged forces. Jurowski, who is principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, cuts a dramatic figure on the podium, tall and angular. From the very first bars he conducted with an extreme economy of motion, using tightly controlled gestures to achieve his desired results. Such a style can yield high drama from the slightest of cues; a finger flipped skyward unleashed sheets of sound.
Jurowski was attentive to minute details in the score, creating a sense of riveting local drama, but also projected a vision for the broad arcs. The climaxes he built in the outer movements raged with an almost disconcertingly meticulous fury. The orchestra met him at every turn, and delivered some of the most forceful playing of the year, the sound balanced just right between fullness and bite, in the way that Shostakovich’s music demands.
The symphony landed with a cumulative impact that all but erased memories of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto that preceded it on the first half of the program. That’s also in part because the repertory pairing felt almost numbingly arbitrary. Arabella Steinbacher played the work pleasantly enough, privileging classical poise over Romantic heat, and swaddling all three movements in velvet tone and a rather indistinctive beauty.