WORKS: Symphony No. 8
PERFORMER: Pittsburgh SO/Mariss Jansons
CATALOGUE NO: CDC 5 57176 2
Of the three American orchestras that are put through their paces in these Shostakovich symphonies, there’s little doubt that Andrew Litton’s Dallas Symphony Orchestra makes the strongest impression. Here is an ensemble that boasts tremendous virtuosity in all departments (as witnessed at its finest in the fast and furious tempo chosen for the finale of the Sixth) and a marvellous range of colours that can easily accommodate Shostakovich’s concentrated levels of aggression, as well as his warmth, desolation and melancholy.
The Tenth Symphony is particularly impressive. In the first movement, Litton demonstrates a formidable grasp of the long-term symphonic structure, building up the tension cumulatively so as to make the climax just before the recapitulation all the more shattering. Such control is also displayed in the ensuing scherzo, where the conductor resists the temptation to blast the listener from the very outset and risk the possibility that energy becomes dissipated well before the close. There are some occasional idiosyncrasies of interpretation, such as an exaggerated ritardando in the second subject of the first movement, which become irritating on repeated listening, but on the whole both recording and performance offer great immediacy. Similar qualities are evident in the brilliant delivery of the second and third movements of the Sixth, though Litton is less successful than Mravinsky in sustaining the bleak landscape in the opening Largo.
In the finale of the Eighth Symphony, Mariss Jansons provides some wonderful insights into a movement whose bewildering contrasts of mood have proved elusive to so many interpreters. There are also exciting and moving sections in the rest of the work, though the performance of the epic first movement doesn’t quite have the same inevitability of direction as that offered by Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic. A further disadvantage is the tone of the Pittsburgh strings, which sound rather chromium-plated in comparison with their Russian colleagues.
On paper the coupling of Shostakovich’s First and 15th Symphonies looks exceedingly generous, and there are obvious attractions to Telarc’s excellent engineering. Alas, López-Cobos presents rather anodyne performances lacking youthful wit and passion in the First, and failing to penetrate much beneath the surface of the death-ridden ambiguities of the 15th. For benchmark recordings of all these works one’s first port of call is inevitably to Russian interpreters, especially Mravinsky, Rozhdestvensky or Kondrashin, though Litton’s Tenth certainly offers a fine alternative in the best modern sound. Erik Levi