Shostakovich 8 

(published first at ionarts)

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D. Shostakovich, Sy. #8, M. Rostropovich / LSO
Even if you know how to approach and appreciate Dmitry Shostakovich’s works, it might take quite a few repeat experiences with any particular symphony in order to have a modest grasp of it. The 8th symphony is no different in that regard. “Unhealthy individualism” and “pessimism” were attested to this stubbornly tragic work when it was singled out for criticism at the 1948 conference of culture-apparatchiks that condemned Russia’s best composers. (It was to have celebrated the turn of the tide in the war - and it just didn't sound like much of a celebration...)

The opening upward fifth after a few introductory bars teases with expectations of the 5th symphony, but neither the younger sister-symphony’s increasingly propulsive character nor her final (if disingenuous) victory march are to be had in the 8th. There is much tumult in the long first movement as well as the short and fast second and third movements. But the Largo and the final Allegretto are calm and cold in comparison.

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D. Shostakovich, Sy. #8, M. Jansons / PittSO
Rostropovich knew Shostakovich (though I was not was not aware that they were “dear friends” as the booklet claims) and he seems to be setting out on a second cycle of DSCH’s symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra on their own label. (A good idea, because the first cycle was mostly forgettable. So far, a fine 5th and an 11th are out. My copy of the latter has a serious production flaw and I have yet to hear from the label if that was just an off-batch or if indeed it is a more widespread problem.)

The overall structure of the 8th may be put into words easily enough, but it is difficult to understand ‘from the inside’, partly because of the meandering first movement, the Adagio-Allegro non troppo. The latter part of the movement has a rather typical Shostakovich build-up of force (with repeated themes and small musical cells, rhythms, xylophone and timpani-supported marches and many mini-climaxes) but then ends in a long, quiet and reflective (or numb?) cor anglais melody that takes you out of the movements’ greatest upheaval.

The resonant and forceful second movement (Allegretto) may be grim and sardonic – but the inner ear can grab a hold of it and with the Allegreo no troppo of the third movement (both are about seven minutes long, compared to over 20 minutes for the first movement and around 15 for the last two) it is one of the keys through which the symphony reveals itself.

Despite slightly recessed sound that is lacking that last bit of clarity (everything very dry, not quite muffled though), Rostropovich brings this live performance off most impressively. I like the sound of Barshai’s (Brilliant – West German Radio SO) and Jansons (EMI – Pittsburgh SO) recording a smidgen better (Barshai’s clear but cool, Jansons rich but not damp) and the third movement is more resistible with Rostropovich. But the cellist-turned-conductor holds more than his own in this symphony. BBC magazine for one, though they might have to be excused for their British bias, thinks that this is the new reference recording of the 8th. I myself would have a difficult time rating any of the three versions I compared between as significantly better than another – all three satisfy. Gergiev’s version of the 8th is bound to come out soon and should make a new, interesting comparison. Like the Rostropovich recording, the Gergiev would be available in the SACD format.

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