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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony no. 8 in C minor op. 65 (1943)
(I. Adagio [30:08]; II. Allegretto [6:29]; III. Allegro non troppo [6:52]; IV. Largo [11:01]; V. Allegretto [16:14])
Beethoven Orchestra of Bonn/Roman Kofman
rec. Heilig-Kreuz Kirche, Bad Godesberg, 26-28 October 2004, DDD

Iím not convinced that comparisons of CD timings are necessarily very constructive. For instance apparently "exciting" fast-paced performances can actually be devoid of tension, simply skating over the musicís surfaces. Seemingly "slow" interpretations, well articulated, can in reality be more exciting. However, I believe in the instance of the present disc some comparisons are instructive.

Taking performances at random from my shelves I came up with the following overall timings for the Eighth Symphony, in no particular order:-
Mravinsky (BBC Legends Ė UK Premiere at the RFH) [59:53]
Rozhdestvensky (Olympia) [62:37]
Rostropovich (LSO Live) [68.45]
Solti (Decca) [63:05]
Jansons (EMI) [62:29]
Sinaisky (Recent BBC broadcast in the "Shostakovich and his Heroes" series) [c.59:00]

Compare these with the timing at the head of this review and you will see that whilst Kofmanís not quite out-on-his-own, he even manages to out-Slava Slava and Rostropovich, especially in recent years, has been no speed merchant.

In the light of my first paragraph, you might say what does this matter? Alas in this case I believe it matters a great deal, since it is indicative of the conductorís overall approach to the composer.

Kofman would have to sit alongside Jansons as the most disappointing Eighth I have heard. Whatever your views about Shostakovich, this symphony, written during the "Great Patriotic War" (as Russians refer to it), is full of tension. Whether its elements are coded outbursts about Stalinism, the Nazis, mechanized war, or whatever it is a deeply felt and unsettling work, and any interpretation should reflect this.

My own litmus test is the short third movement, marked allegro non troppo. Described in the notes to the CD as: "another scherzo, this time furiously evil" (my italics). The writer continues using phrases such as "pounding perpetuum mobile", "powerful muffled blows", and "a monstrous image of a blind and inhuman engine of destruction". Thus the repeated crotchet figure, begun in the violas, must be restless, tense, nagging, dogmatic. What appears in the recording fails to match this description; under Kofman it is simply a series of well-played notes, reminiscent of a singer "marking" a role at rehearsal.

Later in the middle section - sometimes referred to as the "circus music" passage - the first trumpet leads the fray. Here the sleeve-note writer describes the scene as an apocalyptic picture of, "horsemen riding over a corpse-strewn battlefield". What we get on the disc is a recessed trumpet line, tepid and devoid of real energy or inner grit.

Conceding that the third movement doesnít work, does Kofmanís measured approach add gravitas to the slower music in other movements? Alas, no. The performance is still manifestly short of inner fibre. The music becomes simply slow and without purpose, meandering and losing direction. Bluntly, it simply doesnít seem to be "felt".

By comparison I donít recall Bernard Haitink being particularly swift in his Prom performance last year, but the atmosphere in the hall was electric, a fact which was palpable even to the listeners at home on Radio 3. It felt as if the audience hardly dared breathe; the profound silence at the end of the work speaking volumes. I couldnít imagine Kofman emulating such a feeling in similar circumstances.

Harsh words I know, but itís a highly competitive market out there. Itís anniversary year and Shostakovich recordings, including admirable cycles, partial cycles and individual recordings, are rolling off the production line with a fair degree of regularity. Dabringhaus und Grimm are frankly up against it, and have to produce something distinctive to create a niche in the market. Given such economic truths, if the interpretation canít succeed, can the sonics?

The Kofman cycle has been an unusual exercise technically so far. The first two issues, symphony no. 10 and a coupling of nos. 5 and 9, were issued as joint CD/DVD-A packages in a slim-line case. With the third issue, the "Leningrad", MDG appear to have changed horses in mid-stream and converted to the hybrid SACD format. Illuminating perhaps for the hi-fi buff, but not very convenient for the average collector.

However, as an interesting twist, whilst the disc accommodates stereo and 5.1 surround sound, MDG also advocate their own multi-source listening system, 2 + 2 + 2. This involves three sets of speakers, one rear pair and two sets of front speakers, one at listening height, the other high up above the ear-line. Quite how practical this configuration is, especially in trying to maintain domestic bliss, Iím not quite sure.

Putting all this aside, it has to be reported that listening in conventional stereo, the sound from the Heilig-Kreuz Kirche is pretty impressive, the biggest climaxes coming across without any feeling of constraint. An occasional recessive quality of individual instrumental lines is, I think, a factor of the interpretation and nothing to do with the engineering. Certainly the huge climax at the very end of the third/opening of the fourth movement is one of the few instances where the performance seems to cut loose, the percussionists capping the moment with appropriate fervour.

So what do we have? Overall this is a well-played, largely well-recorded disc of what sounds like a run-through or "work in progress" ... although I rather suspect it is not.

I requested this disc for review as I had already purchased a copy of the Tenth and was interested to see whether my views of that recording would be reinforced. They were. It seems this is how Kofman sees the symphonies. Itís a genuine view, no doubt genuinely held, but sadly not one I, and I think many others, will share.

Ian Bailey



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