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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 8 in C Minor, Op.65 (1943)
Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mark Wigglesworth
rec. Music Centre for Dutch Radio and Television, Studio MCO 5, Netherlands, 20-22 December 2004. DDD
BIS SACD1483 [69:54]

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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.

Steve Arloff

see also Review by Colin Clarke




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