Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
WORKS: Symphony No. 8
PERFORMER: WDR Cologne SO/Semyon Bychkov
Back in the early Nineties Semyon Bychkov recorded Shostakovich’s Eighth with the Berlin Philharmonic for Philips. The orchestral playing was predictably superb, but Bychkov’s interpretation was marred by moments of self-indulgence that disrupted the natural flow of the symphonic argument, especially in the outer movements. Ten or so years on, he seems to have modified his approach sufficiently to avoid such pitfalls. Admittedly Bychkov’s reading of some passages still sounds idiosyncratic, the most notable example being the rhythmic broadening at the climax of the first movement. But the newer version demonstrates a much greater concern for structural cogency, and the tricky changes of tempo in the opening movement are handled far more effectively. The same could be said of the finale. Here Bychkov draws the grotesque contrasts of mood into much sharper relief, and is particularly impressive in negotiating the final minutes of the work where the music seems to wind down to the disturbing emotional numbness of the sustained C major chord. In the faster middle movements, the Cologne orchestra more than matches its German colleagues in terms of virtuosity. Indeed, the relentless crotchet patterns of the Allegro non troppo can rarely have sounded more brutal, punctuated as they are by the most strident wind and brass timbres. After this, Bychkov invests the slow funereal tread of the Passacaglia with a surprising degree of textural variety, offering a vivid contrast to the frozen wasteland depicted by Haitink and others. In a review two months ago of another Cologne-based orchestra under Dmitri Kitaenko, I singled out Haitink’s Decca version as the benchmark for this work. Bychkov’s superbly engineered release has convinced me that his powerful reading now deserves that accolade. Erik Levi