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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Funeral and Triumphal Prelude, Op. 130 (1967) [2:50]
Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Op. 65 (1942) [60:.58]
Novorossiisk Chimes (1960) [2:43]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
Rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, October 1991 (Symphony No.8) and April 1992
Presto CD
DECCA 436 763-2 [66:31]

I am not the first writer here to review Vladimir Ashkenazy’s recording of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony. Brian Wilson did so back in 2007 when this disc was included in the conductor’s complete cycle of Shostakovich’s symphonies – an endurance for Mr Wilson as it was for Ashkenazy who had by that stage taken more than a decade to complete his journey through the fifteen symphonies, albeit with some interesting, obscure and not always politically judicious orchestral fillers – two of which are included here.

He wrote when he reached the Eighth Symphony that Ashkenazy made the opening of the Adagio seem as if it was ‘going nowhere’. I don’t disagree with this view. Shostakovich only gives two tempo markings for this entire movement – Adagio and Allegro non troppo so the amount of tundra Ashkenazy can get lost in is rather vast. In fact, he spends almost an entire twelve minutes not really generating much tension at all in music which, played as it should be, chills to the bone. André Previn, in his first recording with the London Symphony Orchestra made in 1973, and one of the great non-Russian performances of this symphony, takes almost exactly the same time by the clock as Ashkenazy but in no sense can you say that his Adagio takes you nowhere. Previn could always do a lot with this Shostakovich symphony – and yes, he does have a much finer orchestra to do his bidding – but you barely have time to come up for air in Previn’s recording before we reach the first raging crescendo; with Ashkenazy not only have you been floating near the surface when the crescendo does come you barely choke on its power. Put simply, Previn and the LSO leave you gasping and fighting for air during the transition whilst Ashkenazy gives you the space to breathe.

In one sense the ‘going nowhere’ approach of Ashkenazy’s long tread during the opening of the Adagio damns him for the rest of the symphony. This is one of the composer’s most joined-up works – all five movements grow from the three notes we hear on the cellos and basses at the very opening. The music is bleaker than anything Shostakovich had written in a symphony to date – it is also more monolithic but all Ashkenazy does is take this at its literal face value. It’s difficult not to take this movement up a few notches as the tempo moves into the Allegro non troppo and Allegro sections of the development and recapitulation. Previn and the LSO are already on the brink of terror – they simply have to shatter the coil of the spring and let the tension explode. Ashkenazy and his RPO are in a different place. Decca’s recording amplifies everything you want to experience in this music, and both are captives to Decca’s fate: the crescendos are massive, the brass rage, snare drums rattle, bass drums thunder, and cymbals brutally smash through the orchestra. It’s just on a very slow burn, and a little innocuous, while Previn rampages through this section with rebellious power and riotous energy. Both approaches will come to mirror the approach they take in the toccata-like third movement.

After the scale of the first movement – all twenty-five minutes of it – the second is a brief six-minutes. And yet, this is a parody of what has gone before. We hear that cello/bass motive – and the Allegretto will end on it in a sudden orchestral felling. Ashkenazy is rather more successful at keeping things moving – but then the music isn’t designed to hold him back. Rhythms are not quite as tight as we hear with Previn and the LSO; the bows of the LSO are more incisive on their strings than you will hear with the RPO, for example, but then Previn allows himself a slightly brisker tempo to do this. He is even quicker in the third movement Allegro non troppo and the primitive savagery of the toccata is dispatched with ruthless efficiency because of that. I sometimes wonder listening to Ashkenazy’s slightly broader approach whether he brings a little more menace to these pages. That trenchant power is grinding, and the RPO strings do not lack weight here even if they do elsewhere. There is nothing subtle with what Shostakovich does with this central movement, and the greatest performances of it are not subtle in how they handle the collapse of its shattering climax into the beginning of the Largo. There is no pause between these movements, the toccata violently heading like a tank into the passacaglia. Ashkenazy does dramatize the terror of the moment, even if it does not suggest the Senecan tragedy of what is to come after it.

Ashkenazy takes an entirely different view of the Largo than Previn does. The two-minute time gap – Ashkenazy is markedly quicker – doesn’t particularly work in Ashkenazy’s favour. The overall shape of this movement in Previn’s hands is rather timeless; with Ashkenazy, and rather surprisingly, we return again to that problem of the music ‘going nowhere’. The movement is constructed in a series of repeated cycles. Such is its stasis it appears fixed in a kind of musical crisis. You get shifts in instrumental colours throughout each cycle – pizzicato strings, a horn solo, woodwind duets and so on and a great performance of this movement is able to achieve all these effects by keeping the frequency of the playing at an almost ghostly level. I don’t particularly detect any of this with Ashkenazy – timeless is overwritten as timely, and the tempo doesn’t allow the orchestra the space to effectively create the mood of spatiality and hypnosis.

The final movement Allegretto finds Ashkenazy on relatively safer ground (or, perhaps relieved he is near the finishing line). Although the movement shares many of the same traits of the first – its brooding intensity, its climax, some of its horror, there is less room for Ashkenazy to get ‘lost’, and he doesn’t. One might not feel the sense of gravity and interminable tragedy which Previn brings to much of this symphony, but Ashkenazy has brought us to the end of this dark symphonic journey in his own quasi-dramatic way.

The two couplings, either side of the symphony, are not Shostakovich at his best and one might prefer them to not be there at all. Funeral and Triumphal Prelude was written in 1967 and is only moderately better than the 1960 Novorossiisk Chimes.

Released on a Presto CD on demand – otherwise only available as part of either Ashkenazy’s complete Shostakovich cycle, or his Decca recordings boxed set – the sound is excellent. The timing for the first work, Funeral and Triumphal Prelude, is incorrect – it should be [2:50] and the metadata when you come to import this CD will give you two options – either to the Shostakovich cycle, or the Decca complete recordings.

Vladimir Ashkenazy is generally a perceptive conductor who can often bring to life a score when few other conductor’s bother to worry about details that Ashkenazy chooses to. A case in point is his New Philharmonia Tchaikovsky Manfred Symphony, arguably the finest ever made. Quite why this Shostakovich Eighth should prove to miss the mark on so many levels is beyond me; perhaps his other Shostakovich symphonies do not. There are much better alternatives. The Previn/LSO on EMI and if you want a recording on Decca, Bernard Haitink with the Concertgebouw. I won’t even begin to recommend Russian recordings which would be doubly unfair to Ashkenazy. Unsurprisingly, this is not a recording that I can recommend.

Marc Bridle

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