Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 8
Artur Rodzinski, cond; New York P-SO
GUILD 2322, mono (58:29) Live: New York 10/15/1944
Historical recordings need to be listened to with a grain of salt. Do they have true historical significance, or are they merely old? Does poor sound quality outweigh the importance of the performance? Are there other, better options available? In the case of the above release, the answers are all positives: this orchestra under this conductor gave the work its Western premiere while the terrible
events that informed the composition were still continuing. The mono broadcast sound is typically dry and “in your face,” but clear as a bell. Above all, this is a gripping, disciplined performance by musicians and a conductor who understood only too well what this brand new music was about.
Rodzinski (1892–1958) was rather overshadowed by other expatriate European conductors in his time. He had a reputation as an orchestral trainer, a perfectionist, and a fierce disciplinarian of the old school. Perhaps he was not very jolly, but neither were Szell or Reiner, yet for various reasons their stars eclipsed that of Rodzinski. His resurgent reputation today, as validated by this release, is based not on nostalgia but on hard evidence.
The Polish-born maestro had conducted Shostakovich’s First, Fifth, and Seventh Symphonies prior to the arrival of the Eighth. Toscanini famously introduced the Leningrad symphony to the U.S., but showed no interest in premiering its dark successor. Judging from this broadcast of six months later— the first performance having taken place in April of 1944—Rodzinski was the right choice.
The New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra plays for him with commitment. In a live, one-take performance of a then unfamiliar score I detected only one split note (at 17 minutes into the first movement). The tricky ensemble problems in the third movement are handled with no trouble, yet not an iota of urgency is sacrificed in the name of precision. The raw emotion prevalent in Shostakovich’s music may be felt here at first hand, as it were: the threat implicit in much of the first movement, the unstoppable aggression of the third, and the quiet, questioning desperation underlying the final movement’s apparent calm.
Like others in the Shostakovich canon, the Eighth Symphony contains passages of quiet, rambling counterpoint in ambivalent harmonies, using minimal instrumentation. In many quite presentable modern performances, these passages come across as dull, lacking that sense of dread that brings them to uneasy life. Rodzinski and his first-class orchestra never relax at these “between peaks” moments; every note in this work holds some significance for them. Yet, unlike some Russian performances, they don’t overdo it.
The final bars of the symphony shimmer with an extraordinary fragility. The closing soft major chord is literally hard won, if indeed it is won at all and not a mere respite. Hearing this performance, we are reminded that neither the composer nor these musicians had any idea when or how the war would end.
I played the CD on two different systems. Understandably, the smaller one was better suited to the raw radio sound (especially with a slight treble reduction to tame the fierceness of the high violins in the first movement). I detected a slight tape swish at the beginning of the final movement, but overall Peter Reynolds’s remastering is extremely clean, and there is nothing extraneous to impede one’s enjoyment of a genuinely significant performance. This interesting release is recommended to place alongside Previn, Haitink, Rostropovich, Svetlanov, or Kondrashin in your collection.
FANFARE: Phillip Scott
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 8 in C minor, Op. 65 by Dmitri Shostakovich
Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1943; USSR
Date of Recording: 10/15/1944
Venue: Live New York City
Length: 59 Minutes 6 Secs.
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