Variations on Shostakovich's Symphony No. 8 VTC

May 22, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Shostakovich, Symphony No. 8 in C Minor (opus 65), "Funeral and Triumphal Prelude" (opus 130) and "Novorossiisk Chimes," performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy conductor (London 436 736-2); Shostakovich, Symphony No. 8, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic, Semyon Bychkov conductor (Philips 432 090-2).

Of Shostakovich's harrowing symphonies, No. 8 may be the greatest. It used to be classified as the composer's response to the horrors of World War II. But the piece was written as the Germans fled the Red Army after their collapse at Stalingrad and it has been argued more recently -- by Ashkenazy, among others -- that the Eighth is more generally about the tragedy of life in a totalitarian system and is filled with fears about the future.

Certainly, it is Ashkenazy's favorite among Shostakovich's 15 symphonies, and this latest release in his Shostakovich cycle ranks as one of the finest performances of it in modern sound. Ashkenazy's only genuine rival may be the great recording by his friend, Bernard Haitink (also on the London label), with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam.

The Russian-born conductor understands the context of this piece -- the brutally repressive realities of his homeland under Stalin and his successors. And like Haitink, Ashkenazy is not intimidated by the structural complexities of the symphony, which begin with a gigantic and wrenching 25-minute adagio, continue with two savage but very different scherzos and yet another painfully searching slow movement and conclude with a strange fifth movement allegretto, which nearly tears itself apart with raging crescendos only to end with exhausted and otherworldly resignation.

Ashkenazy's approach eschews flash for architectural strength: He holds the huge opening movement together, sustaining its tension and building inexorably to its shattering climaxes. His interpretation of the pitiless third movement toccata, with its remorselessly repeated rhythmic figure, seems initially unexciting, but grows exhilaratingly to screeching satirical heights. And his pacing of the final movement is masterly, suggesting the "all passion spent" of Milton's tragic "Samson Agonistes" at the symphony's equivocal close.

Choosing between this recording (which includes two short, moving tributes to Russia's war dead as fillers) and Haitink's is difficult. The Dutch conductor's great Amsterdam players make Ashkenazy's Londoners sound almost like a bunch of ragamuffins. But Shostakovich can take the rough and ready better than other composers.

That is demonstrated by Bychkov's recording of the Eighth with what may be the world's greatest orchestra. The beautiful, polished playing of the Berliners is insufficient recompense for a first movement that is insufficiently sustained, a third movement marred by rhythmic mannerisms and a final one that fails to solve the riddle of the coda.

The best available recording of this piece, however, remains the 1982 live performance (Philips) of what was then the Leningrad (and is now the St. Petersburg) Philharmonic under Evgeny Mravinsky, to whom the work was dedicated and who conducted its premiere.

The sound, while not great, is good, and the performance has a ferocity and conviction unmatched by any other -- save the same conductor's long out-of-print, 1950s recording, once available as an LP on the MK label. That earlier performance will probably re-surface as a CD. And Shostakovich fanciers should be advised that another distinguished, older performance of the piece by Kurt Sanderling -- another close associate of the composer -- is scheduled for re-release on the Berlin Classics label.

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