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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony no. 8 in C minor op. 65 (1943) [58:15]
Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York/Artur Rodzinski
rec. 15 October 1944, Carnegie Hall, New York, live broadcast including introductory and closing announcements
GUILD GHCD 2322 [59:06]


Hitler’s attack on Russia and the consequent Soviet shift of allegiance towards the British-American axis meant that competition became hot for the first western performances of Shostakovich’s great symphonic fresco the “Leningrad” Symphony, his seventh. Sir Henry Wood was first off the mark with a BBC broadcast only three months after the Russian premičre, which had been conducted by Samuel Samosud on 5 March 1942. A week after the broadcast, Wood gave the first western concert performance. Then, on 19 July, Arturo Toscanini gave the first American broadcast.

The surviving recording shows that Toscanini managed to conceal his lack of sympathy with the musical idiom, but he never conducted the work again and declined to give the western premičre of no. 8 without even seeing the score. This new work had been completed on 9 September 1943 and had its first performance in Moscow, under Mravinsky, less than two months later. The honour fell to Artur Rodzinski to unveil the symphony to the west at the Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra on 2 April 1944. He repeated it later the same year in the performance preserved on this disc. The sound is remarkably clean and clear for the date. The dynamic range is obviously limited, the quality a little shallow with some shellac hiss, but quite frankly I wouldn’t expect a studio recording from the same time to sound any better.

Mravinsky’s several recordings, some in fairly recent sound, obviously have a very special authority. Rodzinski, however, yielded to no one in his understanding of the music. No less a martinet than Mravinsky himself, he sees that the long, mainly slow, first movement has a suppressed tension, rather than the sense of doleful meditation which more recent western conductors such as Haitink and Previn have found in it. Like Mravinsky, he dares the woodwind to push their tone to within a millimetre of overblowing. When the explosion comes it is a fearful one.

The savageries, drolleries and violence of the next two movements are resolved with whiplash attack while the ambiguous nature of the final passacaglia is realized with great insight. The pessimistic tone of the symphony won it few favours at the time, on either side of the Atlantic. Even in 1967 Robert Layton could write that “it is not a work in which the composer evinces complete mastery of his material”. Another decade and a reappraisal of Mahler had to intervene before it came to be seen as one of Shostakovich’s most searching masterpieces. Sometimes a new work falters because of poor initial performances. We can hear that Rodzinski’s advocacy and understanding left nothing to be desired.

A disc for connoisseurs and specialists, I suppose, but Rodzinki’s art deserves investigation and the present production is as good a place to start as any. Robert Matthew-Walker’s excellent essay provided me with the information for my introductory paragraphs.

Christopher Howell 



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