MRAVINSKY SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No 8

SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No 8, opus 65
MOZART: Symphony No 33 in B flat K319
Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra
EVGENY MRAVINSKY (conductor)BBC Legends BBCCL 4002-2
TPT: 1:20:29

reviewed by Neville Cohn 

The symphonies of Shostakovich are now so integral a part of the international orchestral repertoire that it comes as something of a surprise to be reminded that his Eighth Symphony, completed in 1943 and premiered in Moscow in November of that year with Evgeny Mravinsky conducting, was only heard for the first time ‘live’ in the UK in September 1960 when Mravinsky himself (the dedicatee of the work) and the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra gave a series of concerts at London’s Royal Festival Hall. This is one of a considerable number of significant events broadcast ‘live’ by the BBC, the recordings stored in its massive archives and now made available on compact discs for a new generation of listeners. This musical treasure trove includes Stokowski conducting Falla, Monteux directing Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust, Enescu presiding over Bach’s Mass in B minor with Kathleen Ferrier one of the stellar vocal soloists. Many more recent BBC releases of archive material feature Benjamin Britten as conductor.

To get back to Mravinsky, that gaunt, chain-smoking figure who, at the time of the Eighth’s premiere and for some years afterwards, was a close friend of the composer (their relationship deteriorated over time): how keenly attuned he is to the requirements of the score. Low-register, sombre tones are like a call to attention – not to some frivolous entertainment but one of the weightiest and most profound utterances to come out of what Russia called The Great Patriotic War.

What co-ordination and intensity of expression Mravinsky secures from the Leningrad strings – and what tremendous tension the playing develops, with timpani crashes like harbingers of doom, and relentless, dissonantly screaming brass mounting an all-out frontal assault on the ears, suggestive -a s Shostakovich was so expert at doing – of brutal power.

Listen to the merrily peeping piccolo in the second movement allegretto – and how it gives way to insistent drummings and urgently blaring brass. And in the third movement, Mravinsky unerringly homes in on the emotional epicentre of the music with its woodwind cries and implacable thuds on the side-drum, evoking what one commentator suggests denotes the mindless drive of war. I particularly admired the skill with which the conductor gives point and meaning to some of Shostakovich’s most poignantly introspective musical ideas in the largo. And a finely stated flute line helps to transform – as Robert Dearling so perceptively writes – despair to a mood of guarded optimism. And in the finale, a movingly expressive flute line is like an oasis of sanity in the madness of war in 1943 Russia.

Throughout, the musicians of the Leningrad Philharmonic play as if the work was written specially for them which, in a significant sense, it was. Many of those performers, or those near to them, might well have been touched by the WWII siege of Leningrad by the nazis – and this lends an extra frisson to the listening experience.

A minuet that sounds a shade stolid and effortful does little to raise an account of Mozart’s Symphony in B flat, K319 above the routine.


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