Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dmitri Shostakovitch, Symphony No. 8

Anyone who really believes that "hope springs eternal …" ought to become a Seattle Mariners fan.

Or, if that's too painful, listen to Dmitri Shostakovitch's Symphony No. 8. From the first notes you can tell that this won't end with any sunny, upbeat "Ode to Joy"-type finale.

To be fair, Shostakovitch wrote his eighth symphony while
(a) in the middle of World War II; and 
(b) under the Stalin regime. 
So it's understandable that the mood here is rife with tension and palpable drama.

What I like about 20th-century composers is their ability to translate visceral emotion into musical scores. Maybe it's because I was brought up on Loony Tunes. But Shostakovitch does this brilliantly. The first movement starts out with dramatic tension that never lets up for its nearly 23 1/2 minutes. The pacing and tone, that sense of foreboding, lasts for pretty much the entire symphony.

The recording that I found is a gold label Everest recording from 1973. That's the year that U.S. troops began to withdraw from Vietnam, the Watergate hearings started and the Cold War continued to make us all feel we were going to get nuked into oblivion. (Sadly, "Rocky IV" wouldn't come out for another 12 years with its lesson that Americans and Russians could live in peace.) A badge on the front cover hails this as the "first American Recording" of the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra performing Shostakovitch's Symphony No. 8.

I admit, I had hoped the liner notes, which are plentiful and in tiny type, would discuss the historic significance of the recording itself. But no. I guess in 1973, anything that said "Moscow" and was for sale in the United States must have been so obviously historic as to render further discussion unnecessary.

So we are left to simply appreciate the music for the historical context in which it was written, not in which the recording was made. That's OK. The Symphony No. 8 celebrates the triumph of the Red Army over the Nazis in World War II, but where Shostakovitch excels here is conveying the sense of devastation and wartime chaos.

What grabs me the most is the composer's use of the entire orchestra. When I first heard Brahms' first symphony, I was struck by the lack of percussion. No worries here. Everyone, including the tympanist, gets a workout. Symphony No. 8 uses brass, woodwinds, strings and bombastic drumbeats to set the mood and create the tense atmosphere that keeps your attention all the way through, even in the lengthy fourth movement:

Though the Soviets triumphed over the invading German Army (spoiler!), the Symphony No. 8 doesn't end with anything like a patriotic finale to celebrate the military victory. As I said in the beginning, Shostakovitch doesn't go for happy endings.

As a recording, the quality of this 37-year-old record holds up well. The dynamics are intact – important when you have such a bombastic piece – and the record surface, as you can hear, is more or less free of the pops and clicks that can get in the way of enjoying older recordings. For a buck, this was definitely worthwhile. You might be able to find it on CD, but the best I could do was an 11-disc set of the complete Shostakovitch symphonies conducted by Kiril Kondrashin, the man who conducted the Moscow Philharmonic on the 1973 Everest recording.

That may be overkill, but as Symphony No. 8 has taught me, sometimes there's no such thing.

1 comment:

  1. This blog gets an instant top spot on my own blogroll. I'll be back!