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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Op. 65 (1943) [59:40]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Gennadi Rozhdestvensky
rec. live, 30 October 1983, Royal Festival Hall, London

Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony, improbably composed in only two months during July and August 1943, is perhaps the most complex of the fifteen in terms of emotion and mood. In an interview in September of the same year, the composer said the work contained “ … many inner conflicts, both tragic and dramatic. On the whole, it is an optimistic, life-affirming work … Everything that is dark and gloomy will rot away, vanish, and the beautiful will triumph.” How little of the real story these words recount!
This performance gets off to a slightly tentative start, especially when compared to studio recordings where retakes are possible, in the opening dotted rhythms akin to those that launch the Fifth Symphony. Thereafter, Rozhdestvensky shapes this 24-minute odyssey with masterly control. At the twelve minute mark fearsome horn playing heralds what is only the beginning of the movement’s massive climax, which then proceeds with shattering power. The playing of the long, meandering cor anglais solo that follows must be described as inspired, the player seemingly possessed by the music, especially as it rises to the instrument’s highest register. I never cease to be amazed that a player is able to continue, after such a solo passage, and participate in the rest of the work. I should be so drained that half an hour’s lie-down, at the very least, would be needed. Are the relative high spirits of the first theme of the second movement - the first of two scherzos - really quite so false, quite so forced, as they seem, or is it just that one knows what is coming? What is coming is the second scherzo, something like the scherzo of the Tenth Symphony, but even more unrelenting in its brutal, onward march. The trumpet playing in what might be termed the trio section is a miracle of double and triple tonguing; if the mood allowed it you’d want to cheer as you listen. Words are inadequate to describe the brilliance of this playing, and the whole orchestra can be similarly praised, though few instances are quite so spectacular. The slow passacaglia follows without a break, a rather inscrutable movement, but one in which the overarching mood of uncertain calm is superbly sustained by these performers. And then how cruel of the composer to present us with a little dose of watery sunshine at the outset of the finale whilst keeping in reserve the most shattering, most disillusioned climax of all. We should have known, though: the last half minute or so of the fourth movement serves as a chilling warning. This climax, like so many in Shostakovich, has been described as crude, and so it is, in truth. Percussion crescendos ending with huge, crashing dissonances are not, let it be said, particularly subtle. But the placing is crucial, and only those allergic to this kind of naked emotion will be left indifferent.
I have listened to this live performance three times and have noticed no major mishaps. This is, in itself, a kind of miracle. The very fact that it is a live performance brings a special intensity that grips the listener. Rozhdestvensky, a quixotic and unpredictable conductor, clearly inspired the superb musicians of the LPO to give of their best on that occasion, and, not for the first time, I marvel at the sheer resilience of orchestral players who are able to pour their hearts and minds into a work so taxing in every respect, emotionally, physically, and then pass an hour or two in the pub before going home. This performance compares in intensity to live Shostakovich performances from Mravinsky, say, but there is no point in comparing it to any of the studio recordings. They are, most of them, pin-neat - and, many of them, superbly effective - but this one is special, a performance that never lets go, as far as the composer’s mysterious, equivocal conclusions.
The recording, by the BBC and presumably broadcast, is only fair when set beside what we now expect. There are a few strange perspectives, and a little background hiss. The percussion threatens to overwhelm the microphones at the biggest climaxes, of which there several. There are a very few coughs from the audience, but there is no applause and no noise between movements. In any event, none of this matters beside the importance of this performance of one of the greatest symphonies of the twentieth century. Lindsay Kemp, in an excellent booklet note, observes that the work’s message is “far from being … clear cut” and that “optimism … seems for the most part to struggle just to survive.”
William Hedley 

Masterwork Index: Shostakovich 8