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SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No.8 in C minor, Op.65; MOZART: Symphony No.33 in B flat, K319.    Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Evgeny Mravinsky. . BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4002-2 (two discs, 59’53" + 22’26")
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Both works were recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall in London on 23 September 1960. The two CDs are offered together at a slightly lower price than that of a single "full price" CD, ample compensation for the relatively short overall playing time of this set.

In his booklet notes, David Lloyd-Jones claims incorrectly that Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony "had not been heard at all outside Russia" at the time of this recording: actually, the work had already been played widely in the West, receiving its UK premiere as early as 1944. However, Lloyd-Jones makes his comment merely to emphasise the unfamiliarity of the symphony to the London audience, and thus the consequent importance of this concert even on purely musical grounds, let alone the significance of the Leningraders’ visit to Britain during the early years of the Khrushchev era. Given the documentary value of the recording, the disgraceful amount of coughing by the audience is particularly regrettable, conjuring up as it does an image of people who were keen to attend the orchestra’s concert as a novel social occasion, but who had little interest in listening attentively to the music itself.

20-bit digital remastering has ben used and although the sound quality (stereo) is opaque in the heavily-scored passages, the recording always conveys a convincing impression of a large orchestra heard at a distance in a spacious concert hall environment. Mravinsky’s 1947 Melodiya recording (BMG 74321 294062) has poor sound even by the standards of its time, being severely distorted at climaxes, and is also transferred slightly below the correct pitch. His 1982 recording was twice issued a full semitone sharp on Philips, which not only misrepresented Mravinsky’s tempi but also falsified the tonal qualities of the orchestra: despite hearing an hour-long symphony in the wrong key, no reviewers noticed that anything was awry until news gradually circulated about the faulty transfer, which hardly gives one confidence in their critical judgement. The 1982 performance was also issued on the Icone label, again at the wrong pitch, but it has been released at the correct pitch elsewhere (Russian Disc RD CD 10917) and the latter is therefore the only recommendable transfer. Three different dates for the performance are given by the three companies who have issued it, but none of them seem to be accurate, an obvious edit in the finale betraying that the recording derives from more than a single performance. Although this version has more brightness and clarity than the BBC issue, some artificially-close balances in the 1982 engineering subtract from the realism of the sound, but at least the audience here is unobtrusive.

Of the three performances, the 1947 version contains the most epic traversal of the first movement, attributable mainly to the tempo, which is particularly slow here, even allowing for the slightly-inaccurate pitch and speed transfer. Nevertheless, the BBC’s 1960 version has much to offer, with a breathtaking pianissimo at 1’02" which is not attempted in the 1982 reading and a fearless presentation of the central climax which is truly shocking in its impact, as it should be. Throughout the symphony, the 1960 version is the fastest of the three performances, notably so in the third movement, which stuns the coughers into silence, being taken here much faster than in 1947 or 1982, so much so that the trumpets have to simplify their part at 3’59" (played as written in 1947), a facilitation which is justifiable here but which sounds merely lazy when repeated in the slower 1982 performance. The 1947 rendition makes a strong impression here too, with very fierce accenting from the strings near the end, the strength of their attack evident despite the sound quality. Apart from twenty seconds of unpleasant orchestral balance in the finale starting at 3’21" (not present in the 1982 version) the playing of the 1960 version is excellent, with only a few trivial flaws, none of them worth detailing. The same large string section seems to be employed for the Mozart symphony, yet even with such a potentially-unwieldy group Mravinsky maintains control over details of phrasing, articulation and dynamics, so that although the playing here is a far cry from current views as to 18th-century performance style, there’s much to enjoy.

The inclusion of the Mozart symphony is unlikely to influence your decision as to which version of the Shostakovich to buy; for me, the distortion on the 1947 recording is less distracting than the coughing during the 1960 performance, which seems to make even the Leningraders lose their concentration in the fourth movement, played rather routinely in 1960 in comparison with what was achieved in 1947. The deficiencies of post-war Soviet sound technology are worth tolerating for the sake of experiencing this symphony in a dauntingly-intense performance, one which is of historic interest in that it dates from less than four years after Mravinsky gave the world premiere in Moscow, and which provides a greater emotional experience than the 1982 rendition, good though that is. The 1960 version is an important and welcome release, but readers will need to think twice before buying it if they find audience noises as irritating as I do.


Raymond Clarke




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