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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 8 in C minor Op. 85 (1943) [62:28]
London Shostakovich Orchestra/Christopher Cox
rec. St. Cyprian’s Church, Glentworth Street, London, 20 May 2006. DDD
DUNELM RECORDS DRD0261 [62:28] 

 


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. 

Paul Cook

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 involved!

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.


 


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