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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Op. 65 (1943)
WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne/Semyon Bychkov
Recorded Kölner Philharmonia, Cologne, Germany, March 2001
AVIE AV 0043 [62:02]


Barshai/Brilliant Classics
Fedoseyev/Moscow Studio Archives
Mravinsky/BBC Legends

Composed in 1943, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 8 is generally considered a musical representation of the horror and devastation of World War II. Given its extra-musical themes, a highly concentrated tension permeates this five-movement work punctuated by a host of tremendous climaxes. Of course, Shostakovich's biting and grotesque satire rears its head as well, most clearly in the third Movement.

Recorded versions from the legendary conductors Evgeny Mravinsky and Kiril Kondrashin have been the standards for decades. For comparison listening, I have also added the excellent versions conducted by Rudolf Barshai and Vladimir Fedoseyev. There are also a few other stirring interpretations including those from Bernard Haitink on Decca, Mariss Jansons on EMI, and Mstislav Rostropovich on Teldec.

My primary reason for providing the above list of recordings is to indicate that the 8th Symphony is certainly not lacking for exceptional representation on record. Therefore, a new performance of the work must possess many of the traits exhibited by these excellent recordings or present new insights into the Symphony to deserve a place in one's music library.

Unfortunately, the performance conducted by Bychkov offers nothing in the way of new insights nor does it match the best aspects of alternative recordings. Yes, the orchestral playing is of the first rank, and the recorded sound is splendid in all respects. Further, Bychkov's climaxes are definitely of great power. However, the consistency of coiled tension found in the best versions is lacking when listening to Bychkov's performance, resulting in a much reduced depiction of the devastation and intense despair inherent in the score. Perhaps most significant, Shostakovich's biting satire has little sting in Bychkov's interpretation.

The interpretative stance taken by Bychkov in the 3rd and 4th Movements readily displays his weaknesses and strengths. The Third Movement is in ABA form with one of the most powerful codas ever written. The first section is built on a machine-like ostinato in toccata form that travels from the violas to the first violins, and eventually to the entire orchestra; it is a concentrated and relentless force that could symbolize a very unattractive futurist environment as well as the never-ending horrors of war. The addition of shrieking winds and grinding bass supports the grisly picture. The second section presents a circus-like atmosphere where Shostakovich seems to be making a mockery of the serious themes he gave us in the first section.

For the first section to be effective, the listener needs to feel that an inhuman and unstoppable power inhabits the musical scenery, one that has no soul. Bychkov doesn't get to this point, because the machine rhythm is not sharply etched and the concentration of energy takes on a diffuse character. His second section is even less successful, sounding like an exuberant day at the park with brass solos that don't come close to having the bite of the brass for Mravinsky. Essentially, Bychkov offers us a rather sane and restricted view of war, while Shostakovich's score captures its wild, dysfunctional and inhuman aspects. In Shostakovich's sound world, the capacity to go 'over the edge' is ever-present. This is the quality entirely missing in Bychkov's interpretation of the third Movement and the work as a whole.

The fourth Movement, marked "Largo", is a Passacaglia having a series of diverse variations over a ground bass. Featuring solo parts for horn, piccolo, and clarinet, this is the most poignant movement in the work and reflects the despair and desolation resulting from war. Bychkov conducts this movement excellently with a keen sense of the extra-musical associations and the dialogue among the musical lines. Still, the comparative versions, particularly the Fedoseyev, convey a greater intensity of desolation than the Bychkov.

In conclusion, Bychkov does not delve into the heart of the 8th Symphony's themes. Considering its premium price, I recommend that readers investigate the alternative recordings in the heading. This rich vein of exceptional performances renders the Bychkov superfluous unless your primary interest is merely excellent sonics.

Don Satz

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