Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8

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COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
LABELS: LSO Live
ALBUM TITLE: Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8
WORKS: Symphony No. 8
PERFORMER: LSO/Mstislav Rostropovich
CATALOGUE NO: LSO 0527
Whoever said that mainstream symphonic repertoire was dying out on CD? This is the most overwhelming of four live Mahler and Shostakovich performances I’ve heard this month, three of them from the labels of the orchestra in question, and like the others its release is of great documentary value. The 16-year-old Rostropovich joined Shostakovich’s composition class at the Moscow Conservatoire in 1943, just before the composer completed his most relentless symphonic tragedy, the Eighth. Rostropovich has since conducted the Eighth many times, and recorded it once before with this orchestra; yet even he must have been amazed and moved by the playing of the LSO at those extraordinary concerts of November 2004.

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Beauty of orchestral tone might seem superfluous in a symphony which hits us with one awful catastrophe after another; but because Rostropovich lets the phrasing bloom when it needs to, and makes a careful distinction between bowed weight and staccato attack, accumulating layers of grief and despair never bludgeon the listener indiscriminately. The first-movement development’s awesome progress from the rising hysteria of numb woodwind to punchbag brass is deliberately but graphically handled, each apocalyptic climax fuller and tougher than the one before. This, of course, is where state-of-the-art engineering has to deal not only with the limitations of Barbican acoustics; it has to also score even over the various classic accounts of dedicatee Yevgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic. Then comes the first of many consummate LSO solos: the cor anglais, lone voice on a scarred battlefield, rising to a level of tone and expressiveness no previous player in my experience has matched; and the coda, slow and desolate, feels its way to an uneasy truce with all the compassion of experience behind it. Those proud, divided lower string chords inevitably reveal less infinite perspectives in this carefully-managed recording than they did in the concert hall, but their atmosphere is palpable all the same.

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There are miracles of interpretation like this at every turn. The grim caricatures of the second and third movements batter the listener unrelentingly but clear-sightedly, with some interesting but always justifiable room to maneouvre (the timpani viciously putting an end to the goose-stepping march, a trumpet solo blandly dropping off the Khachaturian-style production line at the cold heart of the third movement). Mutant woodwind drift across the lifeless landscape of an almost unendurable Largo before clumsily setting the world to rights at the start of the finale – superb playing here from the first bassoon, saxophone-like as he slithers back on the road to life. The recording does not lie about the final, barely conscious fade to nothingness; the audience really was as still and attentive as the silent background suggests. Wisely, the applause which came after a very long intake of breath is not reproduced here. You can only sit and wonder whether, in terms of pity and terror, musical expression could possibly go further. David Nice