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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 8 (1943) [53:05]
Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi/Oleg Caetani
Live recording: Auditorium di Milano, Italy, October 2004. DDD. SACD
ARTS 47704-8 [53:05]


This SACD release brings Oleg Caetani's cycle of Shostakovich symphonies with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi to just past the half-way point.  The previous releases in this series have been received with acclaim in some quarters, but not in these pages (see these reviews: review1, review2 and review3).  Accordingly, I approached this disc expecting either revelation or disappointment.  Unfortunately, I experienced the latter.

The problems with this performance are immediately apparent in the first movement and all stem from a poor choice of tempi.  There is certainly nothing wrong with making bold decisions about tempi - indeed, if idiomatically handled, a different approach can prove revelatory.  The problem here, though, is that by choosing tempi that are consistently quick, Caetani inevitably glosses over the rhetoric of Shostakovich's musical argument and forfeits its grim atmosphere.  The transitions - which are very hard to bring off in the first movement of this symphony, perhaps more so than any in other first movement Shostakovich wrote - are also affected by hurried tempi, and become clunky.  The orchestra struggles with the pace.  The notes are all there, but there is an unsteadiness to the wind and brass and a rasping to the string tone that is quite unattractive.  Not that the full gloss of Haitink's performance is mandatory, but any roughness or edge to the playing should be deliberate, rather than mere poor execution.

Track timings do not convey the whole picture, but here they are illustrative.  I thought it worth making the comparison to my benchmark recording: Järvi with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on Chandos.  To be fair to Caetani's live performance, I also cross-checked his new disc against a couple of recent live accounts in my collection: Jansons' reading on EMI and Barshai's on Brilliant Classics.  In comparison to all three of these recordings, Caetani's emerges as the fastest and the worst played.  He speeds through the first movement in 20:36, as compared the Järvi's 26:27 and Barshai's 27:27.  Even the “swift” Jansons weighs in at 24:29, a good four minutes longer.  Caetani's fourth movement is, at 7:40, more of an adagio than a largo.  All three of the comparison recordings listed above take around ten minutes.  Caetani's quick tempi rob the final movement of its stunned pathos.  Only in the central allegro non troppo is Järvi is marginally quicker, and the ensemble of his orchestra is much more cohesive. 

Not all is bad.  There are certainly some moments that come off very well.  The big climaxes in the first and last movements sound terrifying, and here the DSD recording comes into its own.  Overall, however, not even the sonics can save this release.

In this, the composer's centenary year, EMI will complete its cycle with Jansons and Philips will edge closer to completing its cycle with Gergiev.  What brings this series into competition and may give it an edge over those august rivals is the fact that it is being recorded in SACD sound.  But the performance here is nowhere near as good as the sound.  And of course there are other SACD versions available - for example the review of Kitajenko's recent outing -  and doubtless there will be more as the technology catches on.  I cannot really recommend this disc to anyone, which is a pity. 

Tim Perry





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