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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No.8 (1943) [65:38]
Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, Russia, 15 and 17 June 2011, 16 May 2012 and 23 March 2013
Hybrid SACD/CD Surround/Stereo - reviewed in surround
MARIINSKY MAR0525 [65:38]

Shostakovich recordings from Gergiev are usually greeted with enthusiasm by buyers and critics alike. He has established himself at the centre of Russian and British musical life with his directorship of the Mariinsky Theatre and the London Symphony Orchestra. I have to say straight out that I wish this recording had been with the latter. There are problems here and the most persistent is that the Mariinsky Orchestra sound to have too few strings to do this massive symphony justice. Shostakovich makes huge demands in terms of weight of tone, especially in the lower strings. This performance seems to me to lack that weight. Listen to other issues from Rostropovich on LSO Live, from Wigglesworth on BIS, Haitink on Decca - the list is long - and this present string body sounds too thin. Not that the whole orchestra suffers: the brass, wind and percussion are more than adequate; indeed they are all very accomplished musicians including the strings. Listening to the grim and dark opening movement of this, one of Shostakovich's greatest works, I was disturbed that the strings sound like a middle-sized group and individual instruments come through, reducing the richness and depth. I said there were problems, plural. The other prime problem is another voice, that of Gergiev, who can be heard grunting and humming along with the music at every available opportunity. His vocal accompaniment in the first movement is particularly prominent and disturbing. Given that this so-called performance is a patchwork from no fewer than four live concerts spread over two years - of which more in a moment - one would have expected the engineers to either move the microphones or have a quiet word with Maestro Gergiev.
 
What of the performance? The grim monotony of the first movement adagio is well captured here at Gergiev's slow tempo, even slower than Rostropovich, but the line seems to suffer and a certain slackening of tension results. In the two central scherzos the lightness of bass noted above counts against the necessary drive but there is a fair degree of urgency here especially at the climax of the ostinato in scherzo two when the drums produce massive drama, just as they should. Here, especially the superb recording tells. The spaciousness of the Mariinsky Theatre is well caught and gives a great sense of realism. That said, this passage is not characteristic of the performance overall which is not urgent enough for me. This may well be down to the impact of splicing together a master from four concert performances distributed across two years. It’s a case perhaps of the whole being less than the sum of its parts. I wonder if any one of the individual performances might have been better than this patchwork. Despite also being the result of more than one concert, and probably of some patching, Rostropovich and the LSO provide urgency and gravitas in spades. For me he simply puts Gergiev in the shade on almost all fronts on this occasion.

As a collector I have accumulated twelve recordings of this symphony over the years. The present disc is not competitive.
 
Dave Billinge 

Masterwork Index: Shostakovich symphony 8