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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 - 1975)
Symphony No.8 Op.65 (1943)
Adelaide Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Braithwaite
Recorded by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation 1988 DDD Stereo
ABC ELOQUENCE 426 510-2 [67:24]



Braithwaite takes a Brucknerian view of Shostakovich’s great war symphony. A view which imparts great length and seriousness but which seems to me to conceal traps. If one compares the timings of this performance with the three recordings I took from my shelves (Haitink (Decca), Mravinsky (Moscow 1982, live, Philips nla) and Litton (Delos)) one thing becomes obvious. At 67:24 Braithwaite takes far longer than any of them. This is longer even than Haitink [61:55], whose rightly praised recording was already on the slow side compared to the (young and not-so-young) whizz-kids, Litton [59:17] and Mravinsky [59:35].

Timings are not the whole story of course, but the impression that emerges from comparisons is consistent; the slow performance gains in grandeur but loses the savagery which is an essential part of this epic masterpiece. By making so much of the two slow movements, Shostakovich invites solemnity. Equally he must have expected the violent scherzos at the centre of the work to be a contrast both on the symphonic scale as well as providing contrast of emotional impact. If one takes the outer movements even more slowly, then those central movements must be played, to my mind, with an even greater ferocity, so as to convey the anger and despair that the composer seems to have felt about the "Great Patriotic War". That is where Braithwaite fails to match aim with achievement. I started by calling this performance Brucknerian; I did so with care. Bruckner wrote from a deep and firm faith. Shostakovich wrote from a grim and often angry desperation. This is what I cannot hear.

The Adelaide Orchestra is very good. There are no serious grounds to dismiss this recording on performance quality (or recording quality, which is clear and has a suitably huge dynamic range). The notes by Anthony Fogg are clear and useful. My doubts are almost entirely interpretative. I say almost because the Adelaide is not the Concertgebouw, but nor is Litton’s Dallas orchestra. Perhaps the big snag is the presence in the catalogue (or at least on my shelves) of Mravinsky. This is the man who gave many first performances of Shostakovich’s works - including this one - and the fierce concentration of his performance, more than adequately recorded, is so overwhelming that in the end I have to retain the very first word I wrote down about this worthy Australian CD, superfluous.

Dave Billinge


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