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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No 8 in C minor, op. 65 (1943) [58:46]
Festive Overture, op. 96 (1954) [5:56]
Russian Festival Orchestra/Vakhtang Jordania
rec. January 2003, Bolshoi Hall of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory, Moscow, Russia (Sym. 8).  September 1999, Radio Palace Hall, Moscow, Russia (Festive Overture).
ANGELOK1 CD-9932 [64:02]

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Time passes.  There are young adults today too young to remember the Cold War; they were still toddlers when the Soviet Union dissolved.  Ever fewer are alive to bear personal witness to the worst events of twentieth century European history.  Ever fewer are alive who can bring that horrible, authoritative experience to the interpretation of the music inspired by those events.  As they retire or pass on, new generations, for whom these events are material in history books, take on the task of keeping it alive.  This is done by interpreting the music anew, finding new connections and new resonances in a new era; recognizing the contributions of past interpreters, while struggling not to work completely under their shadow.

The music of Stalin’s Soviet Union is clearly entering this new phase.  None is more emblematic of that time and place, nor more central to the struggle over reinterpretation, than that of Shostakovich.  Which way will it go?  One school of thought says that Shostakovich’s music is universal music; it speaks of struggles within the human spirit, and between individuals and the society they find themselves in.  Or, speaking strictly in musical terms, that his music is one compelling way of moving forward with the tradition of the symphony, string quartet, concerto, and other forms worked out by the canonical composers from Haydn to Mahler.  In both of these senses of integration into the classical tradition, regarding Shostakovich’s symphonies, Bernstein paved the way, and we’ve seen no equal since.  Interestingly, more progress on this road has been made with regard to the string quartets, the Emersons’ recordings being the exemplar.

The other approach may be called “preservationist”: try to recreate for the listener the time and place of the original performances.  Historically informed practice for Shostakovich—which isn’t an idea, or a label, I’m putting out there facetiously.  After all, The Gulag Archipelago gets much of its power from the specificity, the verisimilitude, that Solzhenitsyn creates through his use of style and detail.  If we want to tell a story about Guantanamo, we need to write another book.  In the same spirit, the story of Shostakovich’s symphonies can be told as Kondrashin and Mravinsky told them, perhaps in better sound.

One can try to do some of both at the same time, but it’s tricky.  I believe that Polyanksky’s efforts in this vein mostly succeed, but legions of reviewers have disagreed.  What one cannot do is be indecisive, integrationist for the first section, then preservationist the second.  This, I’m afraid, is what Jordania tries to do in his recording of the eighth symphony, and that switching back and forth kills this performance as a contender for consideration.

Starting with the beginning, the adagio, Jordania’s goal is atmosphere.  He paints, moderately effectively, a dreamy soundscape.  About eleven minutes in, when things need to sound ominous, if they don’t already, Jordania is unable to change gears in time.  The soft-edgedness kills the impact of the thundering brass as much as the queasy dance of the strings.  By about sixteen minutes in, the orchestration achieves some clarity and focus, but by then the point is lost.  The Russian Federal Orchestra doesn’t help.  It sounds as if they can’t muster the power or unity of ensemble to bring off the end of the adagio non troppo.  The brass seem almost puny, outgunned by the percussion.

I could analyze the remaining three movements in similar fashion.  There are good points: the string ensemble is spot on at certain essential points, such as the beginning of the allegretto, and then the brass come in and sound like they might keep up.  Five good minutes, then the strings start to sound weak.  The brass intonation goes bad.  The percussion beats them into the ground.   Tempos recede into foggy indeterminacy.

The Festive Overture pretty well plays itself.  In Jordania’s hands, as in nearly everyone else’s, it’s a fun little romp.

The sound quality is not bad, but it’s not what we’ve come to expect from recent issues.  For instance, Barshai’s cycle on Brilliant Classics, or Wigglesworth’s ongoing efforts on BIS, are sonically superior.  The sound on Angelok1 is thin and boxy, reminiscent of a lot of mid-1980s digital recordings.

If this is to be the beginning of a cycle of Shostakovich symphony recordings, it’s not off to a very promising start.  We need better interpretations of this music for the twenty-first century.

Brian Burtt 


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