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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 - 1975)
Symphony No.8, Op. 65 (1943) [64.14]
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Yoel Levi.
Recorded in Woodruff Performing Arts Center, Atlanta, Georgia, 14 April 1991. DDD
TELARC CD-80291 [64’14"]

This work has for a number of years been thought of as an out-and-out War Symphony; a composer’s reaction to the atrocities suffered by the Russian people during the Second World War. The consequences were 27 million dead, with thousands more injured and maimed.

Latest research in the former Soviet Union shows that far from being a brilliant military strategist, Stalin was duped by Hitler into delaying the mobilisation of his forces so that the casualties were greater than they would otherwise have been. Following these losses, the atrocities carried out by Stalin on his own people were even harsher than those perpetrated by Hitler. So as well as being a contemplation of the horrors of war, this symphony is also perhaps more a contemplation of the horrors of Stalin. The programmatic content of Symphonies 10 and 11 go some way to supporting this view.

Shostakovich’s contemporary comments on his work are worth reproducing here.

"I’ve heard so much nonsense about the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies……Everything that was written about those symphonies in the first few days is repeated without changes to this very day, even though there has been time to do some thinking. . . . Thirty years ago you could say that they were military symphonies, but symphonies are rarely written to order, that is, if they are worthy to be called symphonies . . . . The majority of my symphonies are tombstones. . . . Too many of our people have died. . . . And later all the misery was put down to the war, as though it was only during the war that people were tortured and killed. Thus the Seventh and Eighth are "war symphonies."

"They said, ‘Why did Shostakovich write an optimistic symphony at the beginning of the war and a tragic one now?’ At the beginning of the war we were retreating and now attacking, destroying the Fascists. And Shostakovich is acting tragic, that means on the side of the Fascists.

"The success of the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies was like a knife in the throat for Khrennikov and company. They thought that I was blocking their light, grabbing up all the fame and leaving none for them. It turned into a nasty story. The leader and teacher wanted to teach me a lesson and my fellow composers wanted to destroy me. And every report of the success of the Seventh or Eighth made me ill. A new success meant a coffin nail."

Symphony No.8 is in five movements, the last three joined to form a continuous structure. There is a longish first movement, tragic in nature, which has a passage of extreme violence in the middle. There is then a violent scherzo, fairly short, which prepares us for the drama of the remainder of the work. The first section of the three movement final part, takes the form of a motoric scherzo and then follow two slow sections depicting reconciliation of the human soul. In the hands of a Mravinsky, these last two movements can be a harrowing experience, but here, although the standard of playing of the Atlanta Orchestra is superb, it is all a bit too comfortable to bring out the real pathos of the symphony.

Still, with Telarc’s superb sound and the Orchestra’s excellent playing, this is an issue which will give hi-fi enthusiasts much pleasure, although in the end, Mravinsky or Kondrashin will be more fulfilling.

John Phillips


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