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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Op. 65 (1943) [61:57]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 6-7 April 2009. DDD
NAXOS 8.572392 [61:57]

Experience Classicsonline


This is the third instalment in Vasily Petrenko’s Shostakovich symphony cycle for Naxos. Previously, I’ve heard him in a superb disc of Rachmaninov orchestral music (see review) and also in a very fine disc of two of the same composer’s piano concertos (see review). His Shostakovich recordings had escaped my attention up till now, though I remembered that Bob Briggs and David Barker had warmly welcomed the performance of the Eleventh Symphony. The pairing of the Fifth and Ninth symphonies was admired by Leslie Wright . The welcome for these discs hasn’t been unanimous, however: Dan Morgan was distinctly cool about the Eleventh. So, I was more than a little curious when the review copy dropped through my letterbox.
I first got to know this dark, brooding symphony over forty years ago. It was through the rugged, uncompromising performance by Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic, issued on LP by EMI in their hugely valuable HMV Melodiya series. Subsequently, as I got to know the whole canon of fifteen symphonies, I came to the conclusion that the Eighth is a masterpiece rivalled in emotional depth only by the great Tenth.
The Eighth has fared well on disc, not least in Bernard Haitink’s 1982 Concertgebouw recording for Decca. That said, all other versions that I’ve heard have been put in the shade by the remarkable, implacable live performance by the dedicatee of the work, Evgeny Mravinsky, and the Leningrad Philharmonic (issued by BBC Legends). This disc, which is truly historic in nature, preserves the UK premičre of the work in 1960, given in the composer’s presence. Despite the occasional orchestral fallibilities and the disrespectfully bronchial audience, it’s required listening (see review).
Petrenko’s reading was set down under studio conditions and, inevitably, perhaps it lacks some of the electricity of the Mravinsky concert performance. Even so, it’s a pretty intense experience, but it has the extra degree of polish that can be obtained in a studio. It also benefits from infinitely superior sound.
The Mravinsky account is distinguished by a tremendous weight of tone, especially in the strings – apparently the orchestra that evening mustered eighteen players in each of the first and second violin sections! That said, the RLPO strings are by no means put in the shade. After the initial rhetorical motto on cellos and basses the violins achieve a breathtaking ppp and the strings sustain the bleak opening pages, lasting four minutes or so, with excellent control. This whole movement contains lengthy sections that are very sparsely scored and the concentration with which Petrenko and his players sustain these passages is superb. The colossal climaxes stand like forbidding peaks in this long expanse of often-glacial music and the principal one (16:23 – 17:16) is overwhelming in its power. Immediately afterwards, the extended, bleak cor anglais solo is hauntingly eloquent, like a lament in a nuclear winter
In an essay on this symphony, Michael Steinberg quotes the judgement of Serge Koussevitzky that this first movement “by the power of its human emotion, surpasses everything else created in our time.” That’s, presumably, a verdict delivered soon after the work’s first performances and it’s a view which Koussevitzky might have modified with the passage of time but I know what he meant. It’s a shattering creation and I found Petrenko’s reading of it to be gripping from first note to last. He controls the pacing of the music and its long lines expertly and it seems to me that he comprehends and is able to convey the sheer span of the movement. Indeed, though nothing is rushed he actually makes the music seem to last for a shorter period of time than the twenty-five minutes for which it plays.
After such an experience I’d actually recommend the use of the “pause” button, for though Naxos provide a decent interval between the first and second movements one really needs a bit of a breather to gather ones thoughts. The second movement is a grotesque, dissonant and often strident piece. I’m not quite sure I agree with the label “bluff though sardonic” that’s applied to it by Richard Whitehouse in his excellent booklet note. It seems to me that this is a spiky movement that’s sometimes deliberately nasty in tone – am I fanciful in imagining a parody of and protest against a goose-stepping militarism? I admired the precision of the playing of the RLPO in this movement and the piquant woodwind playing in the somewhat quieter, less brazen middle section is very good.
The last three movements play continuously. III is a relentless, menacing, motoric affair. No conductor that I’ve heard has matched the implacable savagery of Mravinsky, his strings articulating their remorseless quavers with biting power. In the aforementioned essay, Michael Steinberg draws attention to the scream-like figures that recur throughout the outer sections of the movement and says “I think every time of the cellars of the Gestapo and the GPU.” I share his view that this is no scherzo but “a savage relentless machine”. There is sardonic, wry humour in the post-horn galop-style trio, in which the RLPO’s trumpeter distinguishes himself, but when that’s passed the machine returns, even more brutal in tone than before. It won’t be denied until the music achieves its visceral climax. Petrenko handles this movement extremely well.
If anything he’s finer still in the desolate passacaglia that follows. The soft playing of his string section is outstanding and later in the movement there are notable contributions from solo horn, piccolo, flutes and clarinet. Only a few years later Ralph Vaughan Williams was to write music that is not dissimilar in scope and ambience in the finale of his Sixth Symphony. On the evidence of this Shostakovich recording that’s a work that I’d very much like to hear Petrenko essay before too long. As was the case in the first movement, the musical and emotional control exhibited by both conductor and players is admirable.
The finale is a movement that leaves me unsure. I don’t find it easy to grasp where Shostakovich is going emotionally. The surface relaxation from minor key desolation to the relative warmth of a major key might suggest that optimism has finally asserted itself. But I’m not so sure. There seem to be troubled undercurrents at several times and how does one reconcile a more hopeful mood with the arrival at another of those implacably terrifying climaxes? (8:12 – 9:30) Yet immediately that towering climax has spent itself the bass clarinet sets off with what one can only call a sinuous yet quiet dance, in which a solo violin soon joins. What is one to make of it all? And then the last three or four minutes bring some semblance of peace, albeit a somewhat ambiguous, unsure peace. I very much doubt this was the sort of equivocal conclusion that the Soviet musical apparatchicks wanted or expected to hear from the Soviet Union’s leading symphonist during the Great Patriotic War and so the symphony was misunderstood in the years immediately after its premičre just as was the Ninth.
My first encounter with Vasily Petrenko’s Shostakovich cycle has proved to be a rewarding experience. It seems to me that he really has the measure of this epic work and he’s conveyed his vision to the orchestra who reward him with consistently top quality playing. The recorded sound is very good, as is the documentation, including an evocative photograph on the booklet cover, showing the composer at work on this very symphony in 1943.
This powerful, stirring performance would be a leading library contender at full price. At the Naxos price its claims on collectors’ attentions are even greater. I eagerly await further instalments in this cycle, especially the Fourth and Tenth symphonies.

John Quinn

Bob Briggs has also listened to this disc:

I first heard Shostakovich’s 8th Symphony when Arvid Jansons (Mariss’s father) conducted it with the Hallé in Bradford’s St George’s Hall in about 1967. I well remember being bowled over by the sheer size and huge emotional impact of the work. Over the years I’ve heard many performances, both live and in recordings, and my admiration for, and fascination with, the work has only deepened. I have always had a high regard for the Kondrashin and Mravinsky recordings, for they, more than any other, seemed to penetrate to the heart of this very troubled music.
A couple of years ago I had the real pleasure to welcome Petrenko and the RLPO’s performance of the 11th Symphony (Naxos 8.572082) which had a real sweep and verve. Petrenko displayed a superb grasp of the architecture of the music – essential in these huge Symphonies – and brought about one of the best recorded performances of this work. The same is true here.
The long first movement starts with a trenchant attack from cellos and basses, full of anticipation and it’s followed by the most exciting pianissimo! The gradual build-up to the climactic central section – where Shostakovich literally brutalises his music – is as ferocious and vicious as you could want. The final moment of stress – where Shostakovich quotes, for the first time, the Manfred theme (from Tchaikovsky’s work) is quite shattering. Then it all falls away to a very quiet, and most eloquently played, cor anglais lament. This sudden change is very well handled for it is so cruel in its abruptness. After this, but never allowing the tension to drop, the music slowly makes its way to its disturbed ending. The nasty little scherzo which follows is given here in a performance as bland and straightforward as possible, making the perversity of the music all the more prickly. It’s very discomfiting.
The last three movements play without a break and make an imposing edifice. The third movement moto perpetuo is bleak and unforgiving, with unnerving punctuations from high screaming woodwinds. A brief military tattoo cuts across the scene, but it seems like so much hot air, it has no authority, and then we’re back to the endless racing. Again Petrenko builds a gigantic climax, with timpani and drums blasting away as Tchaikovsky’s theme blazes forth in anger; this is quite hair-raising. The ensuing passacaglia is peaceful, if desolate, with beautiful sustained playing from the orchestra. The finale starts in the most bucolic way, with a solo bassoon singing the praises of a simple life and all is sweetness and light. But this is Shostakovich’s great War Symphony so you know that things will take a turn for the worse and sure enough tensions mount and there’s a fierce battle, but I don’t feel the same tension and forward momentum Petrenko displayed in earlier movements when in this situation; the final playing of the Tchaikovsky theme is magnificent but the build-up is too light. However, the quiet coda is excellent, unnerving and disturbing, neither Shostakovich nor Petrenko are going to allow this to be an easy ride into peace.
Apart from this small complaint this is a marvellous performance. Petrenko distances himself, slightly, from the music, and shows us the progress of the music without imposing any personal ideas on it. But this is not an impersonal account, it is a very fine reading and I suspect that, at times, Petrenko had in mind the subsequent political changes which happened in Russian politics after the end of the war, and this has coloured his interpretation. For instance, the trumpet tattoo in the scherzo seems more a snubbing of militarism and blind faith than anything militaristic.
The recording is excellent, full-bodied, and has a very wide dynamic range, the pianissimos being so very, spectacularly, quiet that the climaxes, when they come, are overwhelming. This is a real success.
Bob Briggs



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