Few composers have had their music as indelibly shaped by history as Dmitri Shostakovich.

ShostakovichDmitri Shostakovich at the premiere of his Fourth Symphony. Photo © Alamy Stock

In the last years of his life, his friend Flora Litvinova recalls visiting the composer at the House of Creativity in Ruza. “You ask if I would have been different without party guidance? Yes, almost certainly,” he told her. “No doubt the line I was pursuing when I wrote the Fourth Symphony would have been stronger and sharper in my work. I would have displayed more brilliance, used more sarcasm, I could have revealed my ideas openly instead of having to resort to camouflage; I would have written more pure music.”

Shostakovich’s Symphony No 4 in C Minor, his Opus 43, was in rehearsal when the 30-year-old composer withdrew it in 1936, shortly before its planned premiere with the Leningrad Philharmonic in December. It wasn’t performed until Kirill Kondrashin gave the premiere with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra in 1961.

So why did Shostakovich pull the plug on his Fourth Symphony at the eleventh hour? “We don’t know the answer,” says conductor Mark Wigglesworth, who performs the work with...