Symphony No. 8
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A third of a century after his death the symphonies of Dmitry Shostakovich have moved to the absolute centre of the repertoire. Written during World War II, the unusually constructed Eighth Symphony is a powerful work built on striking contrasts betwee
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Shostakovich is a giant of a composer, arguably the greatest composer of the 20th century, certainly one of them. When one considers that his entire creative life was spent under the crushing oppression of the Soviet system, his achievements are doubly impressive.
The 8th Symphony is a magnificent, intensely dramatic work composed during World War II. Why this work is rarely to be found on concert programs in lieu of yet another performance of the Beethoven or Brahms symphonies is incomprehensible to me. Yes, it is a bit more difficult to program a 62 minute work, but as in the case of Mahler's great symphonies, it can be done.
This NAXOS CD with Vasily Petrenko conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra is, in a word, outstanding. Petrenko captures the angst, the hysteria, the tragedy, and the hope of this war inspired music brilliantly. And the orchestra is more than up to the task.
Whether you are new to the Shostakovich 8th Symphony or you already have this symphony in your collection, this modestly priced CD is a must. It is a first rate performance of a great work.
I won't go as far as to say that Petrenko is a throw-back to Mravinsky, but he does imbibe the piece with the same strong emphasis on structure and form that was very much the hallmark of the great Russian maestro. As Dave Hurwitz from Classicstoday put it, Shostakovich symphonies can often times sound like a series of, quote, "hair-raising climaxes interspersed between acres of nothingness". That doesn't happen here. But that's not all: Petrenko acquires the same sort of tangy, appropriately Russian flavor from his Liverpool woodwind section, as well as a heavy yet intense vibrato from his strings where appropriate (Norrington, this ain't). Even the almost Mariachi-like trumpet solos in the Tocatta (third movement) sound as though they're played on old-fashion Bb trumpets, instead of the slimline sounding C trumpets that are so much in favor these days. Perhaps perception is everything. Regardless, the results are marvelous and thoroughly idiomatic. Even amongst a crowded discography, this one pushes its way towards the front. Given Naxos' bargain basement prices, it's pretty much a steal.
Before the talking points circulated to build momentum for the Petrenko bandwagon, a rather mixed reception was given to the first two releases in his Shostakovich cycle, the 11th and a disc pairing the Fifth and Ninth. Some critics characterized the performances as limp and unconvincing. BBC Music Magazine, for example, called the Ninth underwhelming, which was my reaction, too. This Eighth was the third Naxos issue, and judging by the reviews here, Petrenko and the Liverpool orchestra improved enormously. My ears tell me differently. One prolific listener describes Petrenko's opening as "discreet," praising him for being innovative. What I hear, after a 12-second silent runoff, is a willful misreading of the score -- being different merely for the sake of being different. If you set your sound controls thinking the opening chord is fortissimo as Shostakovich indicates, you'll have a hard time hearing the pianissimo 10 bars later at rehearsal No. 1. Petrenko starts closer to mezzo-forte, a change for which there is no justification.
In this first movement -- and throughout the recording -- the strings sound thin, undernourished. Clearly missing are the 10 double-basses Shostakovich called for to give this symphony its particularly dark tone. Either the horns are overly challenged or the recording engineers have done a poor job of microphone placement because they seem far in the background. Without wishing to belittle musicians' honest efforts, this is not the Royal Concertgebouw or the Chicago Symphony.
Petrenko takes the two scherzos much too fast. In the second scherzo, especially, Petrenko's fleet-footed 6:18 undercuts the movement's implacable march of destruction. (Compare Kurt Sanderling with the Berlin Symphony Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8, also an inferior orchestra nobody would mistake for the Berlin Philharmonic, at a time of 6:47 to hear the relentless assault this movement should impart.) The trumpet solo at five measures after rehearsal No. 97 (3:26 in this recording) is plainly flat. I'm surprised a retake wasn't ordered. Perhaps Naxos' production schedule didn't allow for such refinements. Regardless, at Petrenko's jaunty tempo, the trumpet evokes Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass rather than a menacing vision of a whirling nightmare circus.
The fourth movement Largo also suffers from a pace too quick. At a running time of 9:34, it sounds like a cork aimlessly bobbing downstream, occasionally bumping into an obstacle but continuing on its way with no disturbing apparitions, no mystery, no terror. Because there is no tension, the ending in C Major comes with no sense of arrival, of release. Compare Sanderling in this passacaglia. It's not just Sanderling's timing of 10:32, but also his grip on sustaining the musical line that makes all the difference. In addition, the full compliment of double-basses mentioned earlier is noticeable by its absence in this movement of Petrenko's recording.
As Michael Rofe cites in "Dimensions of Energy in Shostakovich's Symphonies" Dimensions of Energy in Shostakovich's Symphonies. Michael Rofe (2012, p. 52), Shostakovich wrote in a Soviet journal in 1943 that it takes 64 minutes to perform the Eighth Symphony. Not knowing exactly how long the composer was allowing for pauses after the first and second movements or how that duration accounts for each accelerando and ritardendo and fermata makes it somewhat problematic to apply his 64-minute guideline to every recording. But Shostakovich's remark suggests performances of less than 64 minutes deviate from his intentions, which are marked with precision in the score and affect not only a particular passage or movement, but also distort the composer's carefully balanced proportions. The total time listed for Petrenko's rapid run-through is 61:57, and that includes the opening 12-second runoff plus some 20 seconds of silence at the end.
Considering the prestigious award given Petrenko's CD of Tchaikovsky's "Manfred" Symphony, I expected the liner notes to mention the prominent quotations of Manfred's opening alienation motto at climactic points in the Shostakovich Eighth -- in the first movement at seven measures before No. 35 (17:02) and in the finale at five measures before No. 161 (8:47) -- but the obvious connection isn't made. Did no one notice?
Instead of this lightweight Eighth, Andris Nelsons and the Royal Concertgebouw Lucerne Festival: Shostakovich Symphony No. 8 [Blu-ray] have everything Petrenko's recording lacks, including visual contact with the musicians. We sometimes forget it's possible to listen to music and also see it being produced by flesh-and-blood human beings at the same time. Nelsons' concert at Lucerne reminds us we can. On CD, Maxim Shostakovich's neglected Collins Classics performance from 1991 Dmitry Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Op. 65 - Maxim Shostakovich is outstanding. An even more forceful performance, and a knockout of a recording, is delivered by Mark Wigglesworth and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra Symphony 8 in C Minor on a BIS hybrid SACD.
Now Naxos looks to be radically enhancing their catalog via an ongoing Shostakovich symphony cycle from no less than rising Russian star conductor, Vasily Petrenko, and his Liverpool band. The previously released fifth, ninth, and eleventh symphonies were plenty treasure in their way, and the current eighth symphony keeps all the composer's banners flying high.
A compelling chemistry seems operative, among the composer, the band, and the conductor. To tell the truth, I wouldn't have necessarily predicted that the next alluring round of a complete Shostakovich symphony set would arrive from Liverpool. But Petrenko has them playing as well as many competitors in these works, and the inspiration is hot, palpable. Each instrumental department is very strong, with the strings showing an intense discipline and precision. The recording venue is the band's home hall in Liverpool, and so far it is also serving the music well.
Petrenko and company do very nicely at melding and balancing the narrative core strength of the composer's characteristic musical voice with its subterranean codes, obscurities, tortures, mysteries. Lights and dark darks are deftly contrasted and integrated. The threads of manic-crazy despair are not slighted, though lament also rings out, true. Those infamous middle fast movements have more than enough brutality to go round, and then some. In the midst of bludgeoning tyranny, forward motion still carries us into some kind of somewhere else where hope is not quite yet, completely and finally extinguished. The concluding Largo is chilling, consonant, and impersonal enough - we survivors do not yet comprehend very much of all that it means and can mean, to have survived.
Nary a cheap shot moment, then, across all the movements of this odd and remarkable modern symphony. Petrenko as guest conductor has been taking his reading of the eighth on the road, with spectacular concert reviews published in Baltimore, San Francisco, and by now, probably elsewhere. Fortunately, if you missed one of these outings with the eighth symphony, you still have this new disc, the third so far released by Naxos in an ongoing cycle.
If Petrenko and Liverpool can keep this sort of high quality Shostakovich up, they might just achieve one of the most compelling and consistently well-played complete sets. Okay, then, grab this one as soon as possible. The disc really ought to be nominated for something.