Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
LABELS: PentaTone
ALBUM TITLE: Shostakovich
WORKS: Symphony No. 8
PERFORMER: Russian National Orch/Paavo Berglund
CATALOGUE NO: PTC 5186 084
No-nonsense Finn Paavo Berglund has long been a stern master of Shostakovich’s most unrelenting symphony; I remember an Edinburgh performance with the Scottish National Orchestra during the early 1980s when audience members starting leaving in droves during the third movement, presumably unable to accept the levels of pain and dissonance. The same steely grip doesn’t always achieve the intended harrowing here: the first movement development builds in an adagio of rock-solid determination, but when Shostakovich suddenly ups tempo to send forces scattering and bullets flying, Berglund’s steady gait loses some of the cut and thrust it needs. The cautiously reconstructive finale also starts slow and impersonal; surely this is the point where skewed human faces need to surface in the devastated landscape.

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Otherwise, there’s no doubt that a magisterial hand is at work, steadily shaping long-term sequences and arriving decisively at apocalyptic climaxes. A question-mark still hovers over the quality of the Russian National ensemble, recorded in natural perspectives but evidently in need of more time with a first-rate trainer like Berglund: while trumpets bite and sear, the accomplished captains of a resonant brass department, violins fall dead and neutral in the many hushed passages. Rostropovich is luckier with infallible sonorities to call upon in the fathomless LSO version. That still, for me, has the edge of charged silence over Mravinsky’s live recording, sabotaged by Festival Hall hackers and wheezers. David Nice