Finnish conductor Paavo Berglund is a renowned interpreter of the works of his Scandinavian compatriots. Though he is known for some illuminating readings of Danish composer Carl Nielsen's symphonic work, Berglund is perhaps best known for his many recordings of the music of Sibelius, many of which have garnered critical acclaim. His recordings of Shostakovich include renditions of the Seventh, Tenth, and Eleventh symphonies that have been, on the most part, well received.
Indeed, the Eighth seems the next logical addition. On this PentaTone SACD, though, Berglund presents us with a Shostakovich Eighth Symphony that is far too reminiscent of a character that can only be described as Sibelian. And, while the long melodic lines Berglund elucidates are nice, they don't seem to be the best fit for Shostakovich's somewhat colder and harsher compositional style: too deep and rich in sound, heavy in weight and sonority, Berglund's music-making here is simply too plodding and contemplative in tempo to fit Shostakovich.
The towering, grandiose first movement fares the best of the five. At the beginning, Berglund achieves a robust, contiguous melodic line during the slow, evolving dotted figures. To his credit, he also paints many of the softer moments with a pure, white, emotionless quality that is especially haunting (and appropriate). The gradually unraveling inner string lines twist and turn their way beautifully through Shostakovich's complex, dissonant score and there is, at some moments, much to like. As time goes on, though, it becomes apparent that there is a real lack of forward momentum and pacing: eventually the dotted rhythms lose their gallop and the climaxes seem to peak well before they should ever be attained.
While the scherzo of the second movement simply feels too cumbersome, it is the third movement that is the real letdown: far too exacting and much too tame, Berglund seems caught up in the technical fussiness of this movement without giving it any of its desperate, tragic character. What should be a bombastic, war-torn movement lacks any pressing immediacy and bitterness.
The quieter fourth and fifth movements regain a certain amount of focus, although they do tend to meander by design. Berglund lightens up accordingly here, and he successfully instills adequate direction. Perhaps it is in the control of small, minute details where Berglund is at his best: the flute flutter-tonguing at the fourth movement's end, for instance. The Mahlerian chamber music sections tucked away into the fifth movement glow with a warm iridescence that helps bring the work to a delicate conclusion.
Unfortunately, this is a mixed bag. PentaTone's sound is good, although for an SACD one might expect more inner detail to be revealed. While aficionados would be best advised to stay with Mravinsky or even Previn's second Deutsche Grammophon account, the Russian National Orchestra does perform this music with great soul and conviction.