Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 8
Gerard Schwarz, cond; Seattle S
ARTEK 44 (66:39)
The profound nature of the Eighth Symphony, composed during the cataclysm of World War II
the simultaneous oppression of the Stalin regime, makes special interpretive demands upon a conductor. Are the pages of deliberate, gradual melody in the opening Adagio and penultimate Largo meant to portray a war-devastated landscape or suggest an introspective, emotional dread? Is it
to imply one or the other through details of tempo or phrasing? Are the two Scherzos sarcastic parodies or bittersweet humorous relief? Is the conclusion optimistic or ironic? Can the symphony be performed from the perspective of sheer musical logic, without a programmatic agenda?
I wish I knew. My response to a performance is based on how convincing individual conductors are at conveying whatever approach they may take. To achieve a musically and dramatically effective synthesis in this symphony, conductors seem to fall—generally speaking, of course, and by degrees—into two categories of pacing: the expeditious or the rapt. Typically, in this and other of Shostakovich’s most intense symphonies, I tend to favor the latter, such as Bernstein’s remarkably slow shaping of the opening movement of the Sixth (DG), or a grippingly measured version of the 10th I heard Rostropovich conduct with the Chicago Symphony several years ago. Naturally, tempo alone is not the issue; it’s how you handle it, what you do with it. Nevertheless, Rostropovich (Teldec) and Haitink (Decca), neither exactly speed-demons, have been my touchstones in the Eighth.
Gerard Schwarz’s view of the Eighth is certainly a broad—and bold—one. At over 29 minutes, the length of his first movement rivals that of Wigglesworth (
) and Kitayenko (Capriccio), whom I haven’t heard, and Maxim Shostakovich (Collins Classics), whom I have. The latter’s opening to the symphony is stark, elegiac, and bleak; in Schwarz’s hands the music has an ominous feel, but eventually illuminates the darkness by controlling the flow of his slow tempo, building consistently towards the strategic climaxes. Over the course of the Symphony, certain details lack the impact that Rostropovich and Haitink bring to bear—there’s less sweep to the second movement Allegretto, for example, and the slashing strings of the third movement haven’t their tautness, nor does his Largo attain the motionless chill of Maxim Shostakovich’s. But listening to Schwarz’s performance on its own, leaving point by point comparisons aside, a sustained dramatic conception emerges.
By way of contrast, however, I also listened to the significantly quicker 1982 Mravinsky recording (Philips) once more, and was drawn in by the aggression and edginess of his persistent attack. Perhaps this is the way the music was intended to sound. My solution? To live with them all. Schwarz’s is a fine, committed version in good sound. If you lean towards Mravinsky, or the middle ground inhabited by Rostropovich and Haitink, Schwarz will provide a well-argued alternative.
FANFARE: Art Lange
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 8 in C minor, Op. 65 by Dmitri Shostakovich
Seattle Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1943; USSR
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