Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Op. 65 (1943)
WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne
Semyon Bychkov, conductor
Recorded March 2001
Released July 2004
AVIE AV 0043 [62:02]
Comparisons: Barshai/Brilliant Classics, Fedoseyev/Moscow Studio Archives,
Summary: Not Among The Better Versions
The Music - Shostakovich's Symphony No. 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
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.
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