Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8

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COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Symphony No. 8
PERFORMER: Czecho-Slovak RSO/Ladislav Slovák
CATALOGUE NO: 8.550628 DDD
With so few recordings of Shostakovich symphonies available at less than full price, the prospect of a complete cycle from the budget label Naxos is an enticing one, particularly when the discs are attractively presented and feature a conductor who might be expected to possess particular insight into the music.

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Sadly, these first releases in the cycle are well below the standards set by Haitink, Järvi, Rozhdestvensky and Mravinsky, who premiered a number of the symphonies and to whom Slovák once worked as an assistant. The playing of the Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava) is decent but completely outclassed by its full-priced rivals. Nor are matters helped by dry, unspectacular recordings which do less than justice to the sharp contrasts and dynamic variety of Shostakovich’s orchestration.

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The main blame, however, must lie with Slovák himself. Tempi tend to be slow, sometimes verging on ponderous, there is a general lack of rhythmic vitality and momentum, and all too often tension simply drains away. Compared with rival versions, the music comes across as consistently undercharacterised. In Järvi’s hands (Chandos) the famous repeated march theme of the Seventh Symphony starts as a menacing pre-echo of war, builds to a terrifying crescendo and culminates in an unambiguous and vivid portrayal of the fury of battle. With Slovák it is almost comically relaxed and unthreatening, and merely gets louder. In the Eighth, Shostakovich’s heartfelt portrayal of the horrors and suffering of war, Slovák’s slow speeds add neither weight nor intensity, and he comes nowhere near the depth of feeling realised by Mravinsky himself (Philips) in his live recording with the Leningrad Philharmonic. The essentially tragic nature of the smaller-scale 15th Symphony, with its variety of musical quotations from Rossini to Wagner, proves similarly elusive. Haitink (Decca) is outstanding here – and much to be preferred in the Second Symphony, where Shostakovich’s experimental modernism needs surer control to sound convincing (though Slovák has the more idiomatic chorus). David Michaels