The Amazon blurb notes that in 1983, when this live performance was taped by the BBC, the Shostakovich Eighth was a relative rarity. Now the catalog is filled to brimming with superb performances, so Gennady Rozhdestvensky's reading doesn't fill a gap. He was 52 in 1983 and the most experienced of the Soviet conductors to call London one of their musical outposts. In Russia he had been conducting Shostakovich at the top level since his mid twenties, and my chief interest was in hearing how this Eighth compares with the current Russians, particularly Gergiev, who has made a specialty of the score and delivers it with tragic power.(With equal interest one could turn around and compare this new release with Rozhdestvensky's Soviet studio recording for Melodiya and the two great Mravinsky readings.)
GR was a superb ballet conductor, and some of that shows in the very opening of the symphony, where he finds momentum and rhythm where others fall into a dolorous trudge. With so much gloominess to come, it's a good strategy not to doom us from the outset. (Even King Lear has bursts of humor.) I also like the intensity coming from the strings, who must carry the line much of the time in the long arc of this movement. As more than a passing note, the archival sound is very good broadcast stereo with visceral impact but also with noticeable hiss at times. There are Eighths where you feel that Shostakovich painted entirely in shades of gray, but GR brings some garish color to the cheeks, and his fast pacing adds desperate urgency (total timing for the movement is just under 24 min., compared with Haitink and Solti at 26 min. and Previn on DG at 28 min.) Your ear can grasp longer stretches of the development, with a terrific sense of cumulative raw passion. (Only a British audience wouldn't be jumping out of their seats.)
Already we have a viable competitor to Mravinsky's knife-edged reading on BBC Legends, taken when the Leningrad Phil. was on one of their rare tours to the West. The two sure-fire movements are the paired Scherzos, one more vitriolic and hysterical than the other. London orchestras are famous chameleons, adapting to the performance style a particular conductor favors, and here they sound as nervy and blunt as their Soviet counterparts, but with much better woodwind and brass playing. If the first movement suggested GR's ballet credentials, in the Trio of the first Scherzo we land in the romping, stomping carnival of Shostakovich's burlesque dance music. Not even Mravinsky comes close, and Gergiev seems solemnly flat-footed. Frankly, I never imagined that these two movements could get up on their toes like this.
With so much energy and propulsion, GR has pushed the tragic portents of the score into the last two movements, a risk that most conductors avoid by putting so much weight on the first movement long wail of despair. I used to think that the Eighth ended on an anticlimax, with its bare-bone melodies, nervous jitters, and sputtering pace. But Gergiev convinced me that Shostakaovich is dramatizing the tremors of a broken soul, all the more affecting for being so quiet. Gergiev turned this music into a threnody for Russia's helpless war victims, millions of souls swept away like fallen leaves. Here, the same music is less bleak in the whispering string line that weaves through the fourth movement, less eerie in the double-tonguing flute interjections, like static transmitted from another world. A shade slower, more of this might have come through. but undeniably the conductor knows how to hold together music that can sound piecemeal.
Although the fourth movement is a Largo and the finale is marked Allegretto, the mood doesn't lighten. As in the Tenth, Shostakovich's decision to end with seemingly trivial material, some of it rather academically woven into fugato patterns, is quixotic. Only one great outcry near the end reminds us of the agonized world of this symphony before the piccolo and flute whistle us out of the graveyard. Clearly GR reads no hidden subtext, no hidden irony. In the face of death, one is allowed to dance on one's own grave, and he makes the dance almost merry. So in the end this is one of the least mournful of Shostakvoich Eighths but one shot through with power and passion. It's a worthy trade-off, showing that a masterpiece can be interpreted in unexpected ways and remain majestically convincing.