Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8 (CD review)

Valery Gergiev, Kirov Orchestra, St. Petersburg. Philips 446 062-2.

What is clear is that if you already own Previn's 1973 EMI recording of the Shostakovich Eighth, you probably don't need any others. It is still among the best performances and best recordings available. If you don't own it or can't get it, this one by Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra (and several other alternatives) may fit the bill. What is unclear is why Philips rereleased this 1995 Gergiev recording a couple of years ago at full price after releasing it originally in 1996.

Shostakovich premiered the Symphony No. 8 in 1943, and critics consider it the composer's great war epic. However, Shostakovich considered the work to represent not only World War II but the Soviet Union itself, which may explain why the Soviet authorities immediately banned it. The symphony's unrelentingly pessimistic tone and turbulent harmonies led the government to denounce it as decadent and degenerate, unfit for the masses, and it was many years before the work got its proper recognition. Well, it certainly wasn't Tchaikovsky.

Any recording of the Eighth must not only evoke the massive emotional turmoil of war, but it must also compete against one of the most remarkable interpretations of our time, the aforementioned Previn performance. Not even Previn's own newer DG remake quite captures the urgency of the older recording, so it is with some pleasure that I so enjoyed the success of Gergiev's new release, which is almost as good. Almost. But as powerful as it is, the Gergiev recording still doesn't quite capture the sense of overwhelming doom and devastation that the older Previn disc does. This is particularly evident in the middle movement's pulse-pounding rhythms and the Largo's sinister overtones, which Previn makes just that much more gripping than Gergiev does.

Nor does the Philips sound appear quite so focused, markedly deep, or well imaged as EMI's. The newer Philips digital sonics, recorded by Philips in the Concertgebouw, are slightly warmer in the lower midrange, slightly more forward in the upper midrange, and slightly more grainy overall than EMI's, although the recording is marginally wider in stage width, with a touch wider dynamics and more ambient bloom. Both recordings, along with Haitink on Decca and the older Mravinsky performance on BBC, are worthy tributes to Shostakovich's vision of the futility of war and dictatorship.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa