MSTISLAV ROSTROPOVICH - SHOSTAKOVICH SYMPHONY NO 8
Although it was written at a time of great optimism in the Soviet Union with the Nazis in retreat, Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony is imbued with a deep sense of sorrow and fear of the future. Whereas the authorities expected a victorius anthem, Shostakovich appeared too affected by the bloody cost of the war. Mstislav Rostropovich again proves that no other conductor is able to so intimately understand the feelings of his dear friend.
Rostropovich and the LSO play it in this live performance for all its worth - which is a great deal. In all his friend's symphonies, Slava seems to have little truck with all the arguments about political meanings in these works (are they toeing a party line, are they subverting it, are they providing musical portraits of the politburo, etc.?). He plays them as he played all great music - on their own terms but with the utmost expression he can invest them with.
This Eighth is a great performance. The opening movement's sonata-form arguments have seldom been laid out so forcefully; the interrelationships between the introduction's dark, brooding material, the jagged first-subject and the lonely second subject with its lovely pendant rising motif with its drop of a fifth at the end (usually on violins) are all argued through, combined together and manipulated with refreshing clarity. Rostropovich takes note of the non troppo part of the Allegro marking throughout this movement. But there is no short-changing of the emotional content either - witness the huge and overwhelming discords of the climax (shades of Mahler's 10th?).
The allegretto here strikes the ideal balance between charm and bitter irony that is so characteristic of the composer. And Rostropovich has certainly noticed that there are no changes of tempo marked anywhere in the score of the scherzo: observing the non troppo marking instruction again, his tempo is more deliberate than most and he sustains it throughout, including the trio, to great effect. This becomes a far more insistent, unrelenting, numbing experience than that equivalent part of the Seventh's first movement.
And then the Largo is a real descent into Hell. After those huge dissonant chords from the first movement have revealed their true nature, this music becomes as black and as frozen as can be. This is the true, though intimidating, heart of the symphony. And the miraculous cadence into the daylight of the Finale's opening is perfectly realised.
Slava carries the LSO with him all the way in this heartfelt and personal performance. Playing throughout is of a very high order, but the woodwind must be singled out for particular praise - especially the cor anglais and the clarinet. The only shortcoming I can find - and it is a minor one - is that the acoustic of the Barbican Hall is less than ideal. The big climaxes (which are huge in this performance) lack a little of the weight they need sonically and those soul-chilling lonely moments, particularly in the Largo, end up a bit too close and dry; they need more distance, more ambience around them to achieve their full effect. Nevertheless, this is a great performance of a profound symphony, admirably recorded and at a staggeringly low price. Snap it up.
Unfortunately, it doesn't always work. And despite the beautiful and precise performance by the LSO and another superb LSO Live recording of the November 2004 concert at the Barbican, this 8th drags and fails to capture the drama, energy, intensity, fear, panic, and horror of war that makes it the Guernica of 20th century music and one of Shostakovich's most powerful symphonies. Listening to this recording, you wouldn't know that it is one of the best and most powerful compositions of the 20th century!
The time for this performance is 68'45". By contrast, Rostropovich's 1991 recording with his National Symphony Orchestra on Teldec ran just over 61' (see my review), slightly faster than Haitink's powerful 62' 1982 recording on Decca (see my review). Solti's 1989 recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Decca, now out-of-print, my choice for the best 8th, also runs 62'.
The most serious problem with this Rostropovich/LSO performance comes with the second and third movements, the Allegretto and the Allegro non troppo. These are the movements that convey the utter horror of war, if they are played properly. Solti nails them, and Haitink takes them just slightly too insanely fast, which still works. But -- my apologies to Rostropovich, who knew Shostakovich personally and claims unique insight into the composer's intentions -- he does not create the taut forward drive and momentum to bring this mighty symphony to life. The fast movements were the fatal flaw in his otherwise excellent Teldec recording, and now with the LSO, the outcome is even worse. There are beatiful *passages* to be found within, but the overall story is lost, and with it the meaning.