The Symphony No.
8 of Shostakovich was written in 1943 whilst the composer was
evacuated to Kuibyshev. It is the most uncompromising of his
“war symphonies”. Despite its subtitle “Stalingrad” it was,
for a time, viewed unfavourably by the authorities. Indeed it
came in for heavy criticism by Zhdanov, the hated overseer of
things cultural in the Soviet Union at that time. What the organs
of the State disliked particularly was its brooding nature.
It seemed to describe a hopeless attitude in the face of the
devastation taking place throughout the western USSR in the
face of the Nazi onslaught. What they wanted was heroic music
depicting the hammer-blows the Red Army would finally inflict
on the armies of the Wehrmacht – music that would lift the hearts
and minds of the Soviet people not mirror their despair.
It is often written
that only a Russian orchestra and conductor can truly get inside
music of this kind; that those who suffered really understand
the sub-text and can bring out all the nuances in a way others
simply can’t. If that is true what better performance of this
symphony could one have than that of Yevgeni Mravinsky, the
work’s dedicatee, who gave the premiere in November 1943, with
the ink hardly dry on the page. Well if my old Soviet recording
of Mravinsky with the Leningrad Philharmonic made in 1947 is
anything to go by it couldn’t be further from the truth. There
is no doubt he was a great conductor but on this recording the
playing is ponderous, slow, with no sense of momentum or pace.
It lacks fluidity with too many hiatuses because parts of the
orchestra were too slow in taking up their cues, and the violins
sound as if they had suffered too and needed urgent replacing.
In short it is totally un-engaging.
My vinyl version
from 1973 with Previn and the LSO is a much more cohesive performance
but still lacks the power and urgency that the music demands.
It is at times rather slothful and doesn’t set the pulses racing
as it should.
Barshai and the
WDR Symphony Orchestra is on a CD from 1994-5 that is part of
a much praised set of the complete symphonies. This is much
more in keeping with the music’s intention though I did find
the opening of the third movement rather sluggish.
The present disc
from Mark Wigglesworth and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic
Orchestra creates a mixed impression. There are certainly many
moments to admire, but the shock of the unbelievably slow opening
seems to suggest that Wigglesworth is not used to conducting
this repertoire. This despite making his debut with the San
Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 1996, conducting Shostakovich’s
Seventh Symphony, and having conducted his Lady Macbeth of
Mtsensk but then his work on operas is as well known as
is his conducting of Mahler. He is currently engaged in recording
all Shostakovich’s symphonies for BIS. It would be interesting
to know how he might tackle this symphony again after having
completed the cycle. As I say, there are many moments in this
recording that make you sit up and take notice but, even though
the orchestra play their best for him and the sound is well
up to BIS’s usual superlative standards, Wigglesworth’s reading
fails to bring out the horror this music describes. The first
climax in the first movement fails to jar you in the way it
should, despite some wonderful side-drumming. The pathos after
that, is, however, beautifully portrayed by Miriam Hannecart’s
cor anglais playing.
The first of the
two scherzi is more effective with tight control exerted over
brass and strings producing a convincing argument but the second
is lacking in the requisite power needed to show the unremitting
terror being inflicted upon the people. It is a matter of pace
as much as anything. The strings are simply too slow in their
playing, cellos as well as violins and violas, and the precision
of the brass and timpani can’t make up for it.
In the final movement
such issues seem resolved and there is some fine playing here
with crescendos well defined and accurate in pace and style.
The horror of war is much more graphic as can be gauged from
around 8:30 in. The woodwind produce some really beautiful moments
and the brass some terrifying ones.
The final version
I can compare it with is that of a recording of the live concert
held in the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, on 31 January 2006
as part of the recent Shostakovich symphonic cycle, held there
as part of the centenary celebrations this year entitled “Shostakovich
and his heroes”. I was privileged to be there to hear Vassili
Sinaisky conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance
that was near perfect in every way. Those I went with, and others
I spoke to afterwards, felt as I did that we had been present
at one of those unique musical experiences that stay with you
forever. Sinaisky produced a performance that made your hair
stand on end – and it did! It was electrifying and the passages
that are meant to be terrifying truly were. The players produced
music-making of a white hot intensity that brought the chilling
horror of a war in which 25 million people were killed right
into that concert hall in a way that nothing short of the experience
itself could achieve. It was truly memorable. It is to be hoped
that Sinaisky and the LPO record it - if they haven’t already
- and that it turns out to be as good as this performance. If
that happens it would surely become the benchmark recording.
The disc is an SACD.
I wish my equipment could give me the benefit of that extra
dimension in sound though I imagine it might only serve to make
the failings more frustrating. Nevertheless, it is an interesting
and highly individual performance worth hearing.
see also Review
by Colin Clarke