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CD Review

Dmitri Shostakovich

Symphony #8 in C minor, Op. 65 (1943)

WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne/Semyon Bychkov
Recorded March 2001; Released July 2004
Avie AV0043 62:02
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Barshai/Brilliant Classics
Fedoseyev/Moscow Studio Archives
Mravinsky/BBC Legends

Summary: Not Among The Better Versions

The Music – Shostakovich's Symphony #8 is generally considered a musical depiction of the horror and devastation to Russia from World War II. With its extra-musical themes, a highly concentrated tension permeates this five-movement work punctuated by a host of tremendous climaxes. Of course, Shostakovich's biting and grotesque satire rears its head as well, particularly in the 3rd Movement Allegro non troppo.

Recorded Competition – Although not one of Shostakovich's most popular symphonies, the 8th is not lacking for exceptional recordings. Those from legendary conductors Eugen Mravinsky and Kiril Kondrashin have been the standards for decades. For comparison listening, I have also included the excellent versions from Rudolf Barshai and Vladimir Fedoseyev. In addition, there are stirring interpretations from Bernard Haitink on Decca, Mariss Jansons on EMI, and Mstislav Rostropovich on Teldec. Suffice it to say that any new performance of the 8th Symphony needs to display many of the qualities of these superb alternative recordings and/or present new insights into the work.

Bychkov's Recording – This performance does not offer new insights or match the best aspects of alternative recordings. It is true that the orchestral playing is exceptional and the soundstage splendid in all respects; further, Bychkov's climaxes have tremendous power. However, the coiled tension of the best versions is lacking, and Shostakovich's biting satire has little sting in Bychkov's interpretation.

Examples – The 3rd and 4th Movements readily highlight the strengths and weaknesses that Bychkov brings to the music. The 3rd Movement is in ABa form with a tremendously powerful coda. The first section is built on a machine-like ostinato in toccata form that travels from the violas to the first violins, and eventually to the entire orchestra. It conveys an inhuman and relentless force that could well symbolize a very unattractive futurist society as well as the horror of war. The addition of shrieking winds and grinding bass only serves to support the grisly picture. The second section involves a circus-like atmosphere where Shostakovich seems to mock the serious themes presented in the first section.

The first section needs to convey an unstoppable power that has no soul. Bychkov doesn't get to this point, because his machine rhythm is not sharply etched and the concentration of energy is too diffuse. His second section is even less successful, sounding like an exuberant day at the park with brass solos not having nearly the bite found in the Mravinsky performance. Essentially, and this applies to the entire work, Bychkov offers us a war of sane proportions, while Shostakovich's score captures its wild, dysfunctional, and inhuman properties.

The 4th Movement, marked "Largo", is a passacaglia having a series of diverse variations over a ground bass. Featuring solo parts for horn, piccolo, and clarinet, this is the one movement in the work that thrives on poignancy and understatement. Reflecting the despair and desolation of war, Bychkov conducts the 4th Movement excellently with a keen sense of its extra-musical associations and the dialogue among the musical lines. Yet, the comparative versions display a greater intensity of desolation, especially the Fedoseyev account.

Don's Conclusions – Unfortunately, Bychkov does not delve into the heart of the 8th Symphony's themes. Given the wealth of the recorded competition, his recording is superfluous unless excellent sonics are your primary consideration. The premium AVIE price only solidifies my recommendation to take a pass on this disappointing disc.

Copyright © 2005/2006, Don Satz