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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 8 in C minor op. 65 (1943) [61:13]
Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra/Evgeni Mravinsky
rec. live, Leningrad, 27 or 28 March 1982. stereo. DDD
previously released on Philips Legendary Classics 422 4422
REGIS RRC 1250 [61:51]






Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 8 in C minor op. 65 (1943) [61:13]
London Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
rec. 30 October 1979, Royal Festival Hall, London. ADD
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4189-2 [65:16]

Recently there have been two notable discs of Russian performances of Shostakovich 8. One is a reappearance of an entirely Russian affair from 1982. The other has been liberated from and by the British Library and involves a Russian conductor and the then virtuoso British orchestra. To my discussion, I have added the long deleted original Mravinsky recording premiere (Leningrad Philharmonic, 1947: BMG-Melodiya 74321 294062) because of its historical status and as a comparator because one of the two recent releases features the same orchestra and conductor.
Let's start with that 1947 premiere studio session.
Mravinsky was a Shostakovich stalwart. He gave more major orchestral premieres than anyone else. He conducted the first performances of  symphonies 5, 6, 9, 10 and 12; not to mention The Song of the Forests, Cello Concerto No. 1 (Rostropovich) and Violin Concerto No. 1  (David Oistrakh).
Shostakovich wrote the Eighth Symphony at a startling pace while staying at Ivanovo the composers' haven north-east of Moscow. It was premiered by Mravinsky in Moscow on 4 November 1943. After five years of concert life it slipped into silence. Its ambivalence or even sarcasm won oblivion. Expectations had been of a triumphant war symphony for the domestic and international arenas - perhaps a successor to the glare and panoply of the Seventh. In any event it did not have 'permission' to reappear until the 1960s when it was taken up first by the much derided Alexander Gauk (on Russian Revelation RV10061) and then in the West in the 1970s by Previn (EMI Classics).
BMG's Melodiya series arrived in the late 1980s and featured ‘no-noise’ technology - a brand of audio fundamentalism that produced scrubbed-up sound that I find quite listenable like that secured by Boheme but which others anathematised as disembodied and lacking spatial depth.
As you can see from the comparative table below, Mravinsky took things at a generally slower pace than he did some thirty-five years later.


The first movement lumbers forward developing an indomitable intensity. The performance excitingly conveys the baying urgency of the horns at 15.23. One also hears the Seventh's bombast at 16.32 and 16.57. The second is characterised by a heavily emphatic gait. While III - a thudding allegro non troppo - has that satirical-knockabout trumpet solo with side drum at 3.51. No wonder it was looked at askance in some quarters. This sounded too much like the latter two movements of the Sixth and much of the Ninth. Even so there's always that image of pennants snapping and cracking in the Revolutionary gale – just as they do in a much earlier work, Miaskovsky’s Sixth Symphony.
The finale of the 1947 is in fact shorter than in Mravinsky's 1982 version where he took longer in the other four movements.
Moving on to that 1982 version. This has appeared before on the Philips Legendary Recordings series. I have not heard that disc so perhaps others could comment on any differences in sound. In any event Regis, who continue to strike staggeringly attractive deals on deleted material, have done well to land this one. It should do handsomely and certainly deserves to.
In the first movement the sustained high string writing sounds superb. The grip and thunder of the furious third movement is a delight to hear after the narrower world of the BMG-Melodiya sound. In the finale he is just a little too hurried at 11.59 beside his countryman Svetlanov. That ticking three-note figure sounds almost dismissive. There are however many extraordinary moments in this reading including the 'speaking' solos for viola and woodwind at 9.50 onwards. It is as if the instruments are in intimate communion. This forms an introduction to a section that sounds tenderly like his friend Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet score.
The Svetlanov/LSO disc is from BBC Legends.  The sound is more close-up than the Regis and full of impact. The stereo is more splendid and detailed in the manner of the very best BBC technology. Bass response is extended and realistic. The gritty and grating brass - the LSO outdoing even the Leningrad desks - are closely caught; all extremely exciting. The downside, if you must have one, is that perhaps the depth of field is crowded. Frankly though it is unlikely that you will notice this. The experience of hearing this disc is instantly gripping and involving. The hysteria is better conveyed - with a toweringly mordant response. Svetlanov has a superb orchestra at his bidding.
Across these three discs Svetlanov’s finale is the longest by more than two minutes than Mravinsky 1 and about 1:30 than Mravinsky 2. That malevolently ticking clock in the finale-epilogue (13:10) to the niente end is more close-up and tenderly held; the strings more piercingly affecting.
The Svetlanov is a live performance but the audience noise is minimal and the applause, thank God, is held back for those precious moments of silence.
Where do we go from here? You will want to track down the 1947 Mravinsky as a historical document even if it was recorded four years after the Moscow premiere. It's not the first place to go. The Regis is a compelling choice if you are drawn to Mravinsky - and I am. The sound is good with a natural concert hall perspective and a sense of occasion. It's an excellent choice at bargain price and is unmissable if you crave the authentic Soviet tradition. However in this company the outright recommendation has to be Svetlanov. It has a potent combination of vivid sound and gripping interpretation that burns as brightly now on your CD player or IPod as it did when it first came into being at the RFH in the Winter of 1979.

Rob Barnett


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