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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Op. 65 [65:08]
London Symphony Orchestra/ Gianandrea Noseda
rec. live, 8 April 2018, Barbican Hall, London, UK
LSO LIVE LSO0822 SACD [65:08]

The London Symphony Orchestra has been giving us quite a lot of Shostakovich in concert recently with Principal Guest Conductor Gianandrea Noseda, and it is now finding its way on to the orchestra’s own label. The Fifth Symphony can be downloaded, and now we have the Eighth on SACD, from a performance (which I attended) given in April 2018. Perhaps only Nos. 5 and 10 are more often performed and recorded, but I leave others to do that piece of research. Certainly No. 8 seems to have become one of the more popular, even though it does little to court that popularity. It was not popular in the Kremlin, failing to provide the triumphant ending required of a wartime work, and was banned for some years.  It played its part, too, in provoking the next serious episode of official criticism the composer had to endure, and in producing his increasing focus on the safer, less public, form of the string quartet.

The Symphony No. 8 must have had many hundreds of performances since the first in 1943 but has perhaps a less well-established performing tradition than some others in the cycle. Total performance times still range from under 60 minutes to over 70. Noseda’s total time of 65:08 is middling, therefore, and pretty close to many others, such as Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra’s 65:38, made five years earlier in 2013. This is the fifth LSO recording of the 8th that I know, and Noseda’s timing is the middling one amongst those too. Previn took just 61:14 in his generally well-liked 1973 EMI version but 67:42 in 1994 on the less admired DGG, which Rostropovich expanded to 68:45 on his 2004 disc, the previous ‘LSO Live’ account. But it is the composer’s son Maxim’s version with the LSO in 1991 that is the real outlier, with notably slower tempi for the first, fourth and fifth movements. (Mark Wigglesworth with the Netherlands Radio Orchestra on a BIS SACD also takes 70 minutes because of the very broad tempi for the outer movements, and neither MusicWeb review was very admiring of it).

But if we look back at some Soviet era recordings (rows 1-5 in the table), we can see a range from Kondrashin’s brisk, almost angry 56:30 to the 63:51 of Yevgeny Mravinsky in 1947, when the work was still new, (and some of the playing suggests how unfamiliar it was, alas). Mravinsky was more urgent in his subsequent live performances, especially the one in 1960, captured in London. So, discount the struggles the musicians had in 1947 and the early tradition was one of about the hour mark. Noseda in movements 1-4 is not far from the tempi that implies, but the finale takes 16 minutes – almost matching Rostropovich (16:16) with the same orchestra in the same hall.

Conductor Year I II III IV V Total
Mravinsky 1947 27:12 6:48 6:33 10:37 12:41 63:51
Mravinsky 1960 24:40 6.17 5:53 9:29 13:30 59:53
Mravinsky 1982 25:15 6:21 6:25 9:51 13:18 61:13
Kondrashin 1967 23:58 5:44 6:03 8:28 12:16 56:30
Rozhdestvensky 1983 24:57 6:39 6:48 10:28 13:52 62:44
Maxim Shostakovich 1991 29:49 6:32 6:23 12:32 14:47 70:17
Noseda 2018 25:34 6:35 6:15 10:43 16:01 65:08

Away from the stopwatch, Noseda’s tempi also feel right while one is listening, unless one is immovably wedded to the swiftness of Kondrashin or the breadth of Maxim Shostakovich, both worth hearing despite that nearly 14-minute difference.  There is more than one way to tackle a work the composer called “an attempt to reflect the terrible tragedy of war”.

The opening Adagio is broad, and slightly soft grained – other string bodies are encouraged to bite more deeply and sound more defiant. But Noseda sounds a more resigned note, hinting that the struggle ahead is a doomed one, maybe. The atmosphere is bleak, yet the string sound is luminous, secure throughout the wide range of this opening. The second subject with its gently throbbing accompaniment – like the opening gesture, suggesting a more broken version of the Fifth Symphony – continues the feeling of resignation. There is a long way to go in this tremendous 25-minute utterance, and Noseda paces it unerringly. By the time we reach the development the emotional grip has tightened, the high horns blaze compellingly, and the recapitulation arrives with a terrific but controlled crescendo. The long and desolate post-apocalyptic cor anglais solo is movingly done by Christine Pendrill, keening at the human cost of the struggle we have witnessed.

The second movement is steady in pace, its string chords chunky and its squealing woodwinds assertive, the emotional temperature lower (of course) than that of the opening movement, but sardonic, sometimes even bitter in mood. The third movement Toccata is implacable here rather than frenetic, David Elton’s expert trumpet solo in the middle section properly militant and brash. The final violent crescendo is quite shattering enough, more catastrophe than climax. That gives way to the fourth movement Largo which tells us the cost of all this turmoil and tragedy. The very use of the passacaglia form here of course suggests no escape, just the same theme obsessed over for eleven repetitions, only the clarinets and strange flutter-tongued flutes glinting through the gloom, Noseda’s hypnotic slow pulse numbing in its effect. The finale lifts the mist at last, but now we have that really broad tempo which permits every episode in this marvellous sonata-rondo to make its mark, but not outstay its welcome. I recall the stunned silence that followed the final bars, and I am glad to note that no applause is heard on the disc, though plenty of it was given in the hall, once we felt released from the grip of Shostakovich’s bleak, haunted vision. What a work, and what a performance of it.

The sound really matters in this music, with its enormous dynamic range and varieties of both subtle and garish colours. The SACD captures all that and although there is the usual lack of bloom, the Barbican’s dry cramped acoustic actually helps in making it easy to set a volume which keeps the pp music tangible while climaxes have terrific impact but do not require you to reach for the volume control. Above all, the performance is committed and involving, and the disc conveys the cumulative impact we heard at the Barbican.

There are many very fine rival versions, and serious Shostakovich followers are likely to own some already. Most will want one of the two later live versions from Yevgeny Mravinsky (the symphony’s dedicatee) listed above. The 1960 one is on BBC Legends and the 1982 one on Alto, which has corrected the pitch (transferred incorrectly in the earlier Philips issue). Both convey an unremitting intensity often thought to be born of the fact that many these musicians witnessed some of the terrors of which the music speaks. Leading complete cycles that include strong versions of No. 8 include those from Haitink and Ashkenazy, both on Decca, and from Rudolf Barshai on Brilliant Classics. Those wanting a modern version might wish to consider the reading by Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony in their impressive ongoing cycle (review). But Noseda too will hold a place in the catalogue, as a remarkably dedicated, well played and very involving live version.

Roy Westbrook

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