Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8 in C minor

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COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
LABELS: Philips
WORKS: Symphony No. 8 in C minor
PERFORMER: Berlin PO/Semyon Bychkov
CATALOGUE NO: 432 090-2 DDD
Shostakovich’s Eighth is a wartime symphony, composed in 1943, its opening Adagio closely modelled on the corresponding movement of the more popular Fifth, and with four other movements, the last three played without a break. It was denounced by Zhdanov and his fellow Soviet propagandists for, among other things, its ‘unrelieved gloom’, and certainly there is a deep vein of tragedy, a desolation at times almost unbearable. The challenge for any conductor is to maintain the searing intensity even where it threatens to sag.

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Bychkov’s reading has a muscular astringency which does not preclude optimism. At appropriate places the strings glow in the warmth of their own tone, the wind playing is of surpassing clarity and, where apt, the percussion conveys due menace (try the first movement from 16:05 for instance). In the final Allegretto the anguish is largely dispelled, and the close is a true morendo.

Like most other conductors, Bychkov adopts tempi generally faster than Shostakovich’s metronome markings. The composer’s son, Maxim, in a ponderous recording for Collins Classics, is more faithful to his father’s instructions but spins the symphony out to a full 70 minutes.

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Bychkov is more convincing, with sensible pacing, a greater cohesiveness and an impressive dynamic range. Wadham Button