London Symphony Orchestra (Rostropovich) – ‘Shostakovich: Symphony No.8 in C minor, Op. 65’ An SACD review by Mark Jordan

Recordings like this don’t come along very often. Buy it. Here’s why.

First of all, Shostakovich was a major composer of the twentieth century, and his ‘Symphony No. 8’ is arguably his greatest work. The conductor of this release stated many years ago that he believes that in the future Shostakovich will be regarded as highly as Beethoven, and as the years go by, his assessment is starting to look more and more prescient. What’s more is that this conductor was also a personal friend of the composer. As if that weren’t enough, he has recorded the work before, but this time supersedes his earlier performance in assurance and gravity. When you throw in the fact that LSO Live has captured this in recorded sound that supersedes even their finest previous efforts, you are left with a disc which is among the finest of this – or any – year.

Shostakovich’s ‘Eighth’ is one of his great wartime symphonies. It is a glowering, towering monster of a piece that builds up to devastating climaxes only to leave you shell-shocked by the blank, shaky end. It isn’t sweet, happy music, but it is cathartic like little else in all of music, a necessary humane counterbalance to the political and social madnesses of Shostakovich’s own day, not to mention our own. Though it has been frequently recorded, it has rarely hit the mark on disc. One of the first (and finest) performances captured on tape was Evgeny Mravinsky’s blistering 1960 performance live in London, captured in concert by the BBC and recently released on compact disc in their BBC Legends series. The performance is vintage Mravinsky: High adrenaline, fairly fast speeds, and razor-sharp execution – indeed, the demonic third movement crash into the “Largo” fourth movement must have brought some audience members to the verge of heart failure. The recorded sound isn’t quite adequate for the dazzling range of colors and dynamics which Shostakovich used, but it is in stereo and generally sounds better than what one might expect for a radio broadcast from that period. Of special historical note is that the composer was in the audience for that performance. This does not mean, however, that Mravinsky had the only approved approach to Shostakovich’s symphonies. Kurt Sanderling once recounted a story of a backstage conversation where someone started to criticize the conductor’s tempo, assuming that Shostakovich would be pleased that the speaker “knew” what the composer wanted. On the contrary, Shostakovich abruptly cut off the complainer and said, “No, let him do it at a different speed if he wants.” Thus the wide range of tempos found in Russian performances may all potentially be regarded as authentic.

Also coming out of the Soviet Union during the composer’s own lifetime was the recording by Kiril Kondrashin, made in 1967. Kondrashin goes for the glory in a fevered performance that often overwhelms the crude Soviet recording capabilities of the time. As great as it undeniably is, though, Kondrashin – like Mravinsky – has a tendency to push too hard, sprinting through passages that can only make their full monolithic impact when the conductor gives them some space. Yet another Russian conductor allowed for such space in his 1976 recording, but Kurt Sanderling was always more at home in the lyrical and sorrowful side of Shostakovich’s music, thus his ‘Eighth’ is of insufficient voltage to compete with the best, distinguished and heartfelt though it is.

The first major western recording of the work came in 1983 when Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam recorded the work for Decca as part of an ongoing Shostakovich cycle. Haitink was typically insightful in both recognizing the work of this composer’s canon of symphonies before they became generally popular and in connecting them to familiar touch points in the basic repertory such as Tchaikovsky, Mahler, and Bruckner. But as the works have grown in popularity in the last twenty years, the authentically brooding Russian manner has also grown in popularity. Thus Haitink’s approach now in retrospect looks a little poker-faced for Shostakovich’s most imposing works. He did yeoman work in bringing the pieces to a wider audience (I was among those who first met the ‘Eighth’ via Haitink), but his approach now seems too polite, too western. His blank slate works best of all in the finale of the ‘Eighth’ which is itself quite poker-faced and ambiguous in the first place. Whatever its weaknesses, Haitink’s ‘Eighth’ brought the work out in powerful and clear (albeit at times glaring) digital sound, and it can’t be denied that the work never quite took off in public esteem until such a crisp and bright recording was available. If the recording seems rather artificially manipulated today, it is hardly alone in that.

An even greater performance was recorded in the mid-1980’s, again in the Soviet Union, this time with Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra. The performance is a big-shouldered, granite-hewn monster of a performance and it achieved great intensity without resorting to break-neck tempos (though it never dawdles, either). Sadly, the recording was one of Melodiya’s early digital disasters. After the western classical companies began to record digitally with multiple microphones on multiple tracks, the Soviet government saw to it that for reasons of prestige their own engineers were given digital recording equipment. It just goes to show that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it record a symphony orchestra. It took the Soviet engineers years to learn how to use their recording equipment effectively, and before they did, they made some of the most god-awful recordings ever perpetrated upon the record-buying public. Mind you, the Shostakovich ‘Eighth’ is nowhere near as bad as the Schalk-Mahler edition of Bruckner’s ‘Fourth’ which Rozhdestvensky recorded in 1984. That was the absolute height of harsh digital glare. But the Shostakovich is still pretty bad. The dry, bright, shallow sound is frequently overloaded to the point of distortion due to the combining of multiple microphone tracks. The acoustic weirdness of the harsh fake echoes at the beginning of the third movement have to be heard to be believed. And instrumental timbres throughout tend to sound very hollow and tinny, something that might me tamed some day in the future with a judicious remastering of the original digital tapes. Additionally, all sense of hall perspective is destroyed by the multi-track spotlights. For instance, when the solo violin enters in the last movement, it sounds just as large as the rest of the orchestra playing, utterly ruining any sense of dazed introspection which the composer may have been seeking at that point. Thus the recorded sound seriously compromises Rozhdestvensky’s performance. He is one who should make a new recording of the work while he still can.

Two of the major recordings from the late 1980’s and early 1990’s finally presented Shostakovich’s ‘Eighth’ in good sound. First, RCA released a recording in 1989 of Leonard Slatkin and the Saint Louis Symphony. Then in 1994, Telarc released an even more impressive sounding recording by Yoel Levi and the Atlanta Symphony. The Slatkin featured smooth yet detailed sound which covered the entire dynamic range without splintering, with less microphone spotlighting than was normal for RCA. Indeed, the producers even went so far as to put a note in the program booklet pointing out that Slatkin insisted that the recording reproduce the dynamic range which the composer “evidently” wanted. Slatkin is to be commended for sticking to his guns, because the avoidance of aural surgery preserves more natural perspectives, letting the work make its full impact. Unfortunately, Slatkin is far too reserved to bring out the dark side of this music, and the performance ultimately underwhelms through its neutrality, even if it remains distinguished in its seriousness and its recorded sound. The Levi was a more visceral recording, but it captured the dynamic range without distorting perspectives through crude spotlighting. Levi has a touch more fire than Slatkin, but he does not seem to have the vast architecture of the piece within his grasp, pushing tempos to extremes that his orchestra cannot sustain. Levi even miscalculates the tempo of the third movement so badly that the tempo bogs down as the trombones enter because they can’t handle the fast pace.

Finally, in 1994, a successful modern recording appeared when Teldec released the first recording of the work conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich. Rostropovich had been a friend of the composer when he was young and becoming world-famous as a cellist. Even then, though, Rostropovich was showing an interest in conducting. In the intervening years, he has devoted himself more to conducting than to playing the cello, but it has taken many years for him to develop his craft as a conductor. Although there were some very successful initial recordings, there were also many awkward and stillborn ones. By the time Rostropovich recorded his Shostakovich cycle for Teldec, he had become a solid baton technician, and his ‘Eighth’ is a great performance, impulsive and red-blooded. The recorded sound, though reasonable, tended towards excess fake reverb, making the grand architecture of the ‘Eighth’ get a bit bogged down along the way. And like so many other recordings, it uses excessive spotlighting which shatters natural perspectives and isolates solo instruments and sections into artificial acoustic cul-de-sacs. Still, it remains a strong performance in tolerable sound, which is a rare enough status for any recording of this work.

Another 1994 recording of Shostakovich’s ‘Eighth’ was the one with Rudolf Barshai conducting the Cologne Radio Symphony which has only recently come to light in the wonderful bargain-priced boxed set of Barshai’s entire Shostakovich cycle on Brilliant Classics. The performance of the ‘Eighth’ is consistent with Barshai’s vision of the composer: More lyrical than epic, yet tautly classical at the same time. While not as severely drawn as Mravinsky’s performance, it is lean and powerful and is certain not to disappoint anyone who buys his box set (and for the price, who wouldn’t?). Its recorded sound is fairly bright and shallow (in the typical manner of German radio recordings), but does not feature as much intervention from the engineers as most competitors. More akin to Mravinsky’s high-pressure approach was the 2001 EMI recording by Mariss Jansons and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, a live concert recording that captures a performance of strong intensity and focus. Heinz Hall may not be one of the great concert halls, but its sound live in concert tends to be decent in most of the seats I’ve sat in over the years. On the other hand, this recording never really gives the listener a true idea what the sound of the hall is like, reverting back to multiple microphones and distorted perspectives (particularly the solo violin in the finale). In any event, the performance misses greatness despite its nobility, for Jansons drives the orchestra hard to master the technical elements. For instance, one feels that the players’ concentration in the third movement is going toward hitting all the jagged notes at the conductor’s swift tempo, and thus the build to the main climax of the symphony is underpowered. Or perhaps it is merely the pulling back of the microphones for the climax undermines its power. But the overall electricity level here is nowhere near that of Jansons’ mentor Mravinsky. Perhaps only a brutal martinet like Mravinsky could ever be capable of driving the movement that fast while still getting a visceral response from his players. After all, there must have been a reason that Mravinsky’s players referred to him amongst themselves not as “the maestro” or “the conductor,” but as “the enemy.” Jansons is far too genial (as modern conductors must be if they want to work in the business for long!) to inspire such anger and fear.

All of which brings us to the present release. If Rostropovich was an ungainly though eminently likeable conductor to begin with, he became more skillful as he progressed, earning enormous respect, even if by temperament he was never destined to be suave. Let’s face it, if he were suave, he couldn’t conduct Shostakovich’s music so masterfully, for Shostakovich crams his music full of human foibles and extremes. From the poetic to the vulgar to the profound, it’s all in there, and conductors who are willing to flesh out those implications are the ones who bring the music to full Shakespearean life. Rostropovich demonstrates that his grip over this music has increased in the ten years since he made his Teldec recording. In 1994, he rushed through the first movement, using sheer forward momentum to hold it together, and turning in the fastest timing I’ve ever seen for that movement. When he returned to it in London in November of 2004, no rushing was necessary. He had the massive grip and the confidence to take it slowly without faltering, and the London Symphony Orchestra had the muscle to maintain it. Now Rostropovich is among the slowest performers of the opening movement. Indeed, the entire recording adds almost eight minutes to the running time of the earlier performance. It is broad, epic, yet curiously vulnerable in its open emotionality. Though there’s nothing wrong with his earlier version (other than the recorded sound), no devotee of great orchestral music will want to miss this valedictory performance, especially when it comes graced with the finest recorded sound ever heard for this work, despite its origin from a live concert. (Note: The disc omits applause at the end.)

The early releases by the London Symphony’s in-house label featured accurate recordings of their concert hall, which is to say that they sounded very clear but very dry. Acoustic tinkering with the hall in 2002 improved matters considerably, giving more of a sense of air around the recorded sounds. This recording marks a new step forward for the LSO Live label, feature audiophile-quality handsomeness. One suspects that to take the improved hall acoustics to the ideal level they must have added a judiciously slight dose of artificial reverberation. If they have, then more power to them, because it works. It isn’t slathered on the way it is in so many other recordings of this work, including Rostropovich’s earlier one. There is just enough reverberation here to let this epic music breathe freely and sound out into the hall, never more impressively so than in the titanic climax where the third movement collides into the slow movement. As the climax builds, volume and thickness of sound keep piling up, but the recorded sound never turns into a shrieking bloodbath like so many other recordings which become virtually unlistenable at this point. Here, the climax is real and visceral, but not something which might harm your hearing due to gross levels of distortion. Instead, it lands three times like tons of bricks, sending a sonic shock wave from the front to surround speakers and shaking the floor of the room. All while still sounding like fresh, real instruments. But as impressive as this is, it is hardly the whole story of the recorded sound for this performance. Vast stretches of this music are quiet and desolate as a waste land, and the high-resolution recording captures the electric sense of witnessing a great performance, being part of an intense recreation of the composer’s vision. Indeed, there is no greater test of any performance than what it feels like after the initial fortes of the opening movement have subsided. Lesser performances go completely neutral, while the great ones veritably crackle over the silences with a sense of dread. And so it is here. The only peculiarity of the recording is that LSO Live has neglected to use the center front channel in their recording, thus making this multichannel recording a 4.1 (2/2.1) surround sound vehicle instead of the more standard 5.1. I’m not sure why they went this route, but stand assured that they have achieved a glorious recording without the help of that center channel.

In the end, what we are left with is a release that combines a great performance of one of the twentieth century’s most important pieces of music with a state-of-the-art recording. All on a hybrid CD/SACD disc that costs the same as a mainstream release! Bravo to everyone involved on this project: Rarely has the music lover been served so well by a commercial recording.