Out of Shostakovich's 15 symphonies, if you were to choose two to represent defining moments in his career, then it would most probably be numbers 4 and 5. The 4th Symphony (Op 43 in Cm) was composed in 1936 but withdrawn before its first performance for fear that it would be heavily criticised as "formalism". And the 5th symphony was given a warm reception a year later and termed "A Soviet artist's reply to just criticsm" (though probably by a music critic rather than the composer) marking his return to favour.
Shostakovich's first symphony had put him firmly on the map, but while the 2nd and 3rd are not entirely devoid of interest they are not really symphonies in the traditional sense, and give the impression that the composer may simply have been paying lip service to the proletarian ideals. The 4th symphony in contrast is a return to real creativity on a large symphonic scale. Nevertheless at this time the composer was in disgrace with his opera "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District" having been described in Pravda as "chaos instead of music". It must have been clear to the composer that the 4th symphony would not be acceptible in the political climate. Given that some artists had "disappeared" for producing works that did not embody Soviet ideals, he was wise to reconsider its release. The 4th therefore was not performed for another 25 years.
The 4th symphony is not a work that is easy to like. It takes some getting used to, but if approached in the right frame of mind it is a hugely powerful work. It is full of bitter internal conflicts, beating out some nasty little tunes and then sliding into dejected self-pity. The closing section is full of uncertainty and fades away to nothing on a question. It is impossible to listen to this work without feeling the strength of the emotions presented. This work is clearly influenced by the symphonic style of Gustav Mahler, and in particular there are some direct references to his first symphony.
The 5th symphony is more approachable in character, with a softer edge and tighter in construction. However even here there is still satire, and it is possible to speculate that the composer had found a way to appease the authorities but at the same time express some of his feelings and frustrations. The ending seems triumphant in nature, and surely what was expected of a Soviet symphony, but the painfully slow pace of that ending (which wasn't always understood by early interpreters) is still a defiant gesture on the part of the composer, clouding the triumph with a bitter irony. As conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on this recording, Andre Previn brings out this and other subtleties and appears to be wholly in tune with the temperament of the composer.
Since the two symphonies would otherwise leave some unused space on the CDs it is good that the producers have chosen to augment the recording with other works, and highly appropriate that they should choose works by Benjamin Britten to do so. Britten composed these works in the 30s and 40s which fits into the same time period as the Shostakovich works, and the two composers met and shared a mutual respect. For the Britten works, Previn conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and we are treated to the concert suite of Four Sea Interludes and also the Passacaglia from Britten's opera Peter Grimes, and his earlier Sonfonia da Requiem.