Gennady Rozhdestvensky / London Philharmonic Orchestra

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8

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What makes a 1983 live recording of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Op. 65, worth reviving to compete with the numerous studio versions of the work? This release reissues a performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Gennady Rozhdestvensky from London's Royal Festival Hall. The Philharmonic was not at its technical peak; there are scratchy passages in the upper string registers, and in a standard performance by the likes of Bernard Haitink everything purrs along much more smoothly. Instead, what you get here is a prime example of how Shostakovich in Russian hands exceeds the vast majority of what comes from Western conductors. Rozhdestvensky simply connects with the emotional core of the work, which is one of the classical tradition's great responses to the tragedy and inhumanity of war. He ties the massive opening movement together with relatively quick tempos (it clocks in at just over 24 minutes, with other performances ranging as high as half an hour) leading inexorably to the violent climax. It is as if the great panorama of the prewar Soviet Union is fragmented, ripped apart. The second march-scherzo (track 3) is creepily inhuman, the passacaglia slow movement deeply tragic. And everything coheres in a rather mysterious way, leading to the finale: an initially confident mood leading into a battlefield littered with bits of pulverized dreams. The late analog live sound is generally clear. There are certainly other versions to consider, both by Russians (for a contemporary one, that by Valery Gergiev comes to mind) and by Westerners, but the true Shostakovich enthusiast will want to absorb this reading.

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