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Dimitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Op.65 [65.38]
Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. Concert Hall, Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, 15 and 17 June 2011, 16 May 2012 and 23 March 2013

Many years ago Alan Bush talked to me about a discussion he had held with Shostakovich about the latter’s scores. One of the things he revealed that Shostakovich had said during their meeting was that he never revisited or revised his scores once they were down on paper, since this would dilute his original inspiration. This was not invariably true - Shostakovich did - under political pressure - bowdlerise Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as Katerina Ismailova. In any event Bush thoroughly disapproved of this reluctance to make any subsequent alteration to a score even when such amendments might be a clear improvement. In Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony one can see what he meant. Written at great speed in the white heat of inspiration during a mere couple of months during the summer of 1943, the first two movements have an overwhelming impact. The long finale consisting of three linked movements has a tendency to drift until the material from the first movement returns. The lengthy central passacaglia in particular is liable to lose a sense of involvement unless the interpretation is particularly intense.
Mind you, one can understand Shostakovich’s reluctance to disturb the feverish atmosphere which he conjures in this symphony. Initially the Soviet authorities were happy to capitalise on the composer’s reputation by selling American performing rights at vastly inflated figures, but the work was then consigned to neglect until after the death of Stalin. The cultural overlords of the USSR were clearly aware of the uncomfortable overtones of the music particularly in the second scherzo. Its scurrying strings and woodwind and brass shrieks, sometimes sound demonic and sometimes like screams of pain. Not that they would have had too much to concern them in this performance.
After Shostakovich’s death and the publication of his controversial ‘memoir’ Testimony, a tendency arose to treat his scores as symphonic entities rather than simply as a reflection - in the ‘socialist realist’ manner - of the events of his times. Haitink’s cycle for Decca emphasised the purely musical aspects without stinting on the excitement but sometimes the results were lacking in sheer visceral punch. Gergiev here follows decidedly in that trend. The strings during that second scherzo scurry about like frightened rats in a trap. They are very precise in their sense of panic and the sudden interjected chords are precise rather than shocking. The woodwind and brass are again very accurate, but there is no sense of agony in their jabbing downward plunges. There is a similar lack of engagement to be felt in the big climax which crowns the long opening movement. This is grandiose and forceful but not really agonised, either here or when it returns towards the end of the finale. The first scherzo is controlled and slightly on the slow side.
This is the fourth release in Gergiev’s new cycle of the Shostakovich symphonies - an earlier cycle for Philips remained incomplete. The earlier discs in the series featured works with obvious histrionic elements. These found a ready response in Gergiev’s innate sense of drama but the same elements here tend to elude him. It is clear that he is not aiming for the sense of involvement that one finds in Mravinsky and Kondrashin. The players themselves will not have had to live through the same experiences as the earlier proponents of the score. There is a definite sense that he is trying to make the music more conventionally symphonic. Many may like this, but I tend to find the more idiosyncratic approach of a conductor like Rozhdestvensky does more to engage the modern listener’s sympathies. In retrospect it is easy to imagine that Shostakovich in 1943 was looking forward to the ultimate victory of the Soviet forces in the face of Nazi invasion. In fact, at the time of composition German forces were still everywhere fighting on Russian soil and Soviet success in the ‘Great Patriotic War’ could by no means be taken for granted. Nor was there any certainty that victory would bring any degree of amelioration to the lot of the Russian people under the threat of further Stalinist purges. One doesn’t need to accept the ‘testimony’ of Shostakovich to recognise these elements and a purely musical approach to the Eighth Symphony surely lacks a basic element in the whole. On the other hand this recording, assembled from a number of different performances over a lengthy period, is far better served by the engineers than Rozhdestvensky ever was. The orchestral playing, if sometimes over-precise, is always superb. Those following Gergiev’s cycle need not hesitate; others may prefer to look elsewhere.  

Paul Corfield Godfrey
Masterwork Index: Shostakovich symphony 8

Previous review: Dave Billinge