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

The playing of the London Symphony Orchestra on this recording is beautiful. It’s smooth, rich, warm and inviting; and that is exactly the problem.

The Eighth Symphony is one of the darkest in Shostakovich’s canon, a cycle not exactly known for its sunlit uplands. It’s music of at times unspeakable bleakness and cynicism, composed against the backdrop of terror and total war. The last thing it needs is a conventional reading, the music played as though it were Bruckner or Mahler. Yet that’s what Gianandrea Noseda seems to give it. You need look no further than the very opening gesture, the decisive down-and-up plunge on the strings that sets the tone for the whole forthcoming work. It’s an intentionally jagged motif, but Noseda smooths it over, the phrases melding into one another in what turns into a fairly homogenous and, therefore, fairly meaningless collection of notes.

It’s unwise to overinterpret these things, but for me it sets the tone for what follows, a reading of the symphony that’s technically flawless but lacking in depth and, most importantly, grit. The first movement unfolds as though it’s getting a read-through rather than a full performance. Not even the devastating (in the right hands) climax at its centre could shake off the emotional torpor, and after the cor anglais solo the whole argument seems simply to wind down. The perverted march theme of the Allegretto is given a full, rich string treatment that just didn’t convince me and seemed, unwisely, to be channelling Brahms.

Only in the third and fourth movements did it even begin to convince me. The horrific war machine of the third movement has incisive energy in the outer Toccata sections. Here the wail of the solo instruments sounds plaintive and desperate and I particularly liked the section played by unison violins with the drop on the xylophone. Then the zany circus music at its centre sounds like a routine done by the demonic clown from It. The passacaglia turns with grim slowness, and the solo contributions are wonderful, particularly from the horn.

Again, however, it’s excellent playing but poorly directed, and the bassoon passage that launches the finale sets in motion a final movement that chugs along with little purpose. The string playing, particularly towards the end, is sweet to the point of delicacy, but that’s not what’s called for here. I got resolution when I wanted the desperate, questioning ambiguity that should leave your nerves dangling.

This is, I believe, the first part of a Shostakovich cycle that Noseda is undertaking with the LSO (No. 5 has already been released) but, for me at any rate, it’s not a propitious start. It’s made even less convincing by the fact that there is stiff competition from the greatest recent competitors, such as Gegiev on the Mariinsky label, or Petrenko and the RLPO on Naxos. They will give you real fire and ice, not smooth beauty. The fact that the LSO’s booklet notes and recorded sound are so good seems, in the light of this, to be neither here nor there.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Roy Westbrook

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