1943 work got Shostakovich in trouble Symphony No. 8: In this Previn version, the music is depressing but not boring.


November 12, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Shostakovich, Symphony No. 8 in C minor (opus 65), performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, Andre Previn conducting (Deutsche Grammophon 437 819-2)

This listener rates the Shostakovich Symphony No. 8 -- along with the Sibelius Symphony No. 4 and the Mahler Symphony No. 6 -- as one of the three most depressing of the great symphonic works written in the 20th century.

Shostakovich had a knack for getting himself in trouble with the Soviet authorities, and this piece did the trick. Only a year or so after the hugely popular Symphony No. 7 ("Leningrad"), the composer surprised everyone with No. 8. It opens with a tragic adagio with a time span of about 25 minutes (almost 28 in the new Previn version); continues with two bitterly ironic scherzos, followed by another pain-filled slow movement; and concludes with a movement that begins satirically, rises to a raging crescendo and comes to an end with an almost pessimistic morendo.

No wonder the symphony, which premiered Nov. 4, 1943 -- when the German armies were retreating before a number of bemedaled Soviet generals -- led to Shostakovich's denunciation the authorities.

Previn has always been an eloquent champion of this work -- there was a fine recording about 15 years back on EMI. As often with Previn remakes, the conductor's interpretation tends to be more relaxed the second time around. In this case, however, "relaxed" does not translate as boring. The first movement's huge time span at Previn's unusually slow tempo never weakens. He strikes the proper note of hysteria in the two successive scherzos and measures almost to perfection the ambivalence of the final movement with its equivocal coda.

As a performance this version is not as exciting as some others -- particularly the live 1982 Mravinsky-Leningrad Philharmonic (Philips) or the Ashkenazy-Royal Philharmonic (London). But it is better recorded than the former (which is a semi-tone sharp) and more often played than the latter.

Hear the music

To hear excerpts of the London Symphony Orchestra playing Shostakovich's Symphony No. 8, call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6190. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

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