Notes and Editorial Reviews
On the face of it, this symphony would seem to be the logical successor to Bychkov’s recording of the Seventh (27:5), but it’s surprising how few conductors have recorded both (other than as part of a complete cycle); all the more reason, then, to applaud Semyon Bychkov for a refreshing bit of programming (it is ironic that this recording actually preceded that of the Seventh—it dates from 2001—but how appropriate, then, that Avie released them in this order).
The performance begins with a commanding opening, so reminiscent of the Fifth, yet leavened by doubt. The first theme is taken deliberately, very much in keeping with the questing (and tortuous) nature of the music—the sense of striving against seemingly insurmountable
odds is palpable, aided by the vivid, direct sound. The second theme is no less effective in its pulsing, increasingly ardent expressiveness; the screams of the winds are arresting without overwhelming the rest of the orchestra. The martial music and the beautiful English horn melody are highlights, one counterbalancing the other: the percussion barrage of the former is especially effective, while the orchestra’s English horn plays with a rounded, almost bassoon-like quality that is striking in its individuality. This is a performance in which the emotional content is always informed by, and is in service to, the underlying structure, so that the listener is less aware of the interpretation as a series of episodes and is fully engaged in the dramatic schema.
Michael Steinberg has written that the second movement couldn’t possibly be mistaken for something heroic; in this performance, there is no danger of that—the satiric element very much to the fore, with the lovely, petulant piccolo desperately trying to impress us with its importance. How much this seems to be in the spirit of Mahler, with the first, emotionally draining movement followed by this pompous trifle! The third movement is taken at a good, brisk clip, which highlights the relentlessness of the ostinato; the strings are perfect in their biting, sprung quality, while the wind and brass interjections are just as crisply articulated—again, this is persistent without becoming tedious, insidious as well as brilliantly executed.
The cataclysm that ushers in the fourth movement is startling but controlled, and then we’re back in the sound world of the first movement—or that of the First Violin Concerto, with its own passacaglia. The flutter-tongue flute episodes are wonderfully evocative and perfectly played. Then, reminiscent of the Rondo-Finale of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, the fifth movement intrudes, with its jaunty bassoon and flute. Bychkov manages these transitions seamlessly, and the delicacy in this movement is just as convincing as the more jaunty elements. The meandering last section, with its poignant solo violin, is unsettling as well as peaceful, another Shostakovich paradox.
Mariss Jansons’s EMI recording is the most recent in a relatively small field. His first movement is no less dramatic, stressing the sense of despair; but it is also less emphatic in its utterance. Jansons seems able to find a degree of refinement that most others don’t (or can’t) manage, which often manifests itself, as here, with wonderfully delicate moments; I find, though, that the emotional impact of the movement as a whole is less pronounced than in Bychkov’s performance. The succeeding two movements have neither the bite nor quite the precision of Bychkov and his orchestra, as impressive as the Pittsburgh Symphony is; this may also be attributable to the sound, which is somewhat diffuse. The fourth movement benefits from the Jansons touch; the finale is sprightly enough, but it doesn’t quite manage to cohere. While I admire the Jansons, and feel that it is a worthy addition to his Shostakovich discography, I find the Bychkov performance to be the more compelling.
The sound of this new Avie recording is excellent—I noted the vividness of the earlier recording in my review; instrumental detailing is exemplary, and the performance has been engineered for maximum clarity. It is good to be reminded on occasion that a “regular” stereo recording can still command attention.
This is an idiomatic and dramatically effective interpretation, and is a perfect partner to its numerical predecessor. While it may not erase memories of Mravinsky or Haitink (my personal preference), this performance is highly competitive with recordings of recent vintage. Bychkov recorded the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic back in the 1980s; is it too much to hope for a remake?
Christopher Abbot, FANFARE Read less
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 8 in C minor, Op. 65 by Dmitri Shostakovich
Cologne West German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1943; USSR
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