Concert Review

Revisiting Shostakovich's 8th Symphony: LSO, Bernard Haitink, Barbican 22 June 2000 (MB)


It is extremely rare to be able to revisit a concert performance of one of the great twentieth century symphonies by the same conductor and orchestra on consecutive nights, and perhaps rarer for a critic to seek to reassess his initial views of the interpretation. Bernard Haitink's performance of Shostakovich's most tragic symphony had left me largely unmoved on Wednesday evening, so much so that I questioned more closely than in any other concert I have been to whether my initial impression had been the correct one. Many people had clearly been moved by Haitink's performance and one critic thought it the finest performance he had ever heard of the Eighth.

Largely, my impression of the interpretation remains unchanged. If anything, the second performance was more spacious (in excess of 70 minutes) and again had an inexorable power that only the breadth of tempo employed here can give the work. The first movement again impressed, with its colossal development sustained over a miraculously conceived arc that seemed not only inevitable, but right. It was perhaps easier to appreciate the second time how Haitink draws this movement, almost in a single breath. It is a formidable achievement. The beauty of the string playing opened up fabulously rich textures (staccato passages were contrasted with a broad-toned openness to the string sound) and woodwind and brass were authentically fierce and shrill. The piccolos, in particular, were outstanding - menacing and genuinely frightening. The one undeniable moment of greatness in this performance, in the last movement, occurred just after the final climax when trombones and tuba herald the beginning of the coda. The clarity of the phrasing and the sheer depth of sound was astonishing. It is easily the most shattering interpretation of this passage I have heard. The fourth movement Largo was intense and beautiful - more so than I remember it being at the first concert, the woodwind, particularly thrummed flutes and a glorious oboe solo, mesmerising.

Why Haitink's performance of this symphony still left me unmoved can only really be grasped by looking at three other conductors who have recorded the work. All interpretations of the Eighth are inevitably overshadowed by the recordings made by Evgeny Mravinsky, who gave its first performances.

The two finest Mravinsky discs contain performances from 1947 (RCA Melodiya mono 74321 29406-2) and 1982 (Ph. Virtuoso 422 442-2). The first offers perhaps the closest parallel to Haitink's own view of the opening movement. Both take the first movement at, or near, 27 minutes in length, but whereas Haitink can sound almost literal (and inevitable) in the broadness of tempo he employs, Mravinsky uses the spaciousness to divest the work with a thrusting incisiveness. Where Haitink draws the audience into a web of spellbinding sonorities, leading us into a world dreamy barrenness, Mravinsky almost underplays this and instead seems to relive a genuine sense of nightmarish horror. The sheer terror of this symphony eludes Haitink. By 1982, Mravinsky had given the opening movement a quicker pace and the result makes for electrifying listening. There seems real distress in the playing and the illumination in Mravinsky's interpretation is almost totally to do with universal suffering. Haitink's LSO simply did not convey the menacing undertones of this work, the playing too refined for the apocalyptic vision Shostakovich surely had in mind. You might find the Leningrad brass too strident and the woodwind too acidic, but there is no doubting the power such playing brings to this work.

Kyril Kondrashin, in a sensational live performance on Praga (PR 250040), offers a uniquely magnetic reading that gets to the heart of this symphony's inner meaning. Recorded in Prague in 1969, shortly after the Velvet Revolution, it is angry and volatile in equal measure and is unrivalled on disc for the sheer excitement it generates. The third movement allegro outpaces everyone else, but more importantly pushes the orchestra to limits of stress that are magnetic. The velocity of the playing conveys a deeply personal view that almost breaks the work's infrastructure. It is a universe away from Haitink's almost temperate vision of this work. A recording by Kurt Sanderling (on Berlin Classics 0020642BC) is the nearest of all these recordings to Haitink's own performances of the work. Similarly spacious, it offers perhaps the closest on-disc interpretation of these LSO concerts.

I can fully understand how Haitink's concerts have proved revelatory to some. I have found it illuminating to approach the work from Haitink's perspective, although must ultimately disagree with his view of the Eighth. A truly great interpretation of the Eighth must leave one physically shattered, and Haitink's does not. These have been emotionally draining concerts, for the Eighth is that kind of symphony, but I don't think Haitink has persuaded me his way is the right one.

Marc Bridle

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