Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8
(1943) stands not only as one of that composer’s masterpieces,
but also as one of the 20th century’s greatest works
for symphony orchestra. My last copy of Schwann listed ten different
versions of the symphony in print, and this was almost a decade
ago. A decade before that there were fifteen. For all its grimness,
for all its suppressed anger, the Eighth has never fallen out
of the repertoire and newer recordings are appearing on the
market at about the rate of two a year. This is one of them.
It should be said right at the
start that this is a “concert performance” and has a sixth track
about thirty seconds long of applause at the end, which is foreshortened
from its actual length. A very close listening will allow you
to pick up all of the ambience of a live recording, in this
case, bird sounds, an automobile passing by and other sounds
— groans, seats creaking, — that, under normal circumstances,
could have been edited out. The engineers here chose to keep
those sounds in. And, in truth, they aren’t much of a distraction
unless you’re sitting quite close to your speakers or are listening
to the recording with headphones. Then they are quite clear.
However, the real issue is the
quality of playing by the London Shostakovich Orchestra. The
notes tell us that the LSHO came together in November 1999 in
order to perform the greater and lesser works of Shostakovich.
The players themselves are drawn from amateurs and professionals
in and around London. This is, unfortunately, the central problem
with this recording. The LSHO is a “Not Ready For Prime Time”
orchestra and needs a bit more experience with this particular
symphony, to say nothing of several musicians in the LSHO who
need more practice on their instruments.
This is most telling in the first
movement, a classic adagio – allegro non troppo. Maestro
Cox takes this movement at a very sluggish twenty-seven
minutes whereas most conductors pace this movement around twenty-two
to twenty-four minutes. For example, the version of Symphony
8 conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich with the National
Symphony Orchestra on Teldec 0630-17046-2 brings the first movement
in at just under twenty-three minutes. But this is no crime.
However, the strings, particularly the basses — which must carry
this whole symphony — sag due to the slow pacing. There is no
continuity in the bowing of the basses and you end up hearing
bows moving across their strings instead of the melodies themselves.
I hate to belittle the LSHO, but the musicians are so
careful in their articulation that you can picture their brows
furrowed in concentration, hunched over their instruments, their
tongues sticking out of one side of their mouths as they try
to get their instruments to sound the way they should ... the
way we did in high school orchestra practice.
I know that’s a terrible thing
to say, but it happens throughout this work. There are grating
screeches in the violins, an over-eager percussionist a half-step
ahead of everybody, and several off-notes and sonic collisions
in the brasses which almost ruin the heart-rending conclusion.
I will say that there is a beautiful cor anglais solo
by Nick Ridley that’s as good as any I’ve heard in this symphony.
In fact, I’d say the bassoons, flutes, oboes comport themselves
magnificently here, but then writing for these instruments,
particularly the bassoon and oboe, is something Shostakovich
did particularly well.
Youthful indiscretions aside,
this isn’t a bad performance, but I can’t imagine listening
to it a second time. I think a studio recording with digital
editing would have greatly improved this particular release.
Live recordings are popular but only to publishers. They’re
cheap and quick to get to market. But the applause at the end
detracts from the purity of the work and I really don’t want
to hear applause unless I’m at an actual performance of a work.
My apologies to the LSHO.
Note from Dunelm
Thank you for the review* of DRD0261:
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8. The reviewer
says nothing that's new to me, but I
had hoped that there would have been
some encouragement from him that "amateurs"
do give their time and ability to meet,
learn and play such works instead of
yards and yards of Mozart!. It would
be lovely, as he says, to take them
all to a studio and make session recordings
but he misses the point that the recordings
are secondary to giving "live"
performances to an enthusiastic audience.
And that's not to mention the costs
Regarding the applause, I always take
particular care to:
(i) shorten it to about 25seconds, and
(ii) give it a separate track so that
for those who take things seriously,
it can be programmed out of the whole
sequence on playback.
He obviously doesn't have this facility.
As a result of my heart attack in January
this year, I was unable to record this
year's concert, but the LShO managed
to obtain a successor.
May I thank you for the reviews which
you have published for the LShO. There
may be some readers who will take a
look at the achievements of this very
good "amateur" orchestra.