There's a lot of strength to the argument that this is the finest of all Shostakovich's symphonies (No.10 is probably the only real rival). Certainly it is the best of the wartime group. No.7 is a bit too blatant (Bartok had a point about the big build-up tune in the first movement and the Finale thumps the tub a bit hard). And No.9 is a strange animal, fascinating in its ironic and perverse way, but curiously not of its time. No.8 on the other hand is profound both as music qua music and as a deeply Russian take on humanity under extremes.
Rostropovich and the LSO play it in this live performance for all its worth - which is a great deal. In all his friend's symphonies, Slava seems to have little truck with all the arguments about political meanings in these works (are they toeing a party line, are they subverting it, are they providing musical portraits of the politburo, etc.?). He plays them as he played all great music - on their own terms but with the utmost expression he can invest them with.
This Eighth is a great performance. The opening movement's sonata-form arguments have seldom been laid out so forcefully; the interrelationships between the introduction's dark, brooding material, the jagged first-subject and the lonely second subject with its lovely pendant rising motif with its drop of a fifth at the end (usually on violins) are all argued through, combined together and manipulated with refreshing clarity. Rostropovich takes note of the non troppo part of the Allegro marking throughout this movement. But there is no short-changing of the emotional content either - witness the huge and overwhelming discords of the climax (shades of Mahler's 10th?).
The allegretto here strikes the ideal balance between charm and bitter irony that is so characteristic of the composer. And Rostropovich has certainly noticed that there are no changes of tempo marked anywhere in the score of the scherzo: observing the non troppo marking instruction again, his tempo is more deliberate than most and he sustains it throughout, including the trio, to great effect. This becomes a far more insistent, unrelenting, numbing experience than that equivalent part of the Seventh's first movement.
And then the Largo is a real descent into Hell. After those huge dissonant chords from the first movement have revealed their true nature, this music becomes as black and as frozen as can be. This is the true, though intimidating, heart of the symphony. And the miraculous cadence into the daylight of the Finale's opening is perfectly realised.
Slava carries the LSO with him all the way in this heartfelt and personal performance. Playing throughout is of a very high order, but the woodwind must be singled out for particular praise - especially the cor anglais and the clarinet. The only shortcoming I can find - and it is a minor one - is that the acoustic of the Barbican Hall is less than ideal. The big climaxes (which are huge in this performance) lack a little of the weight they need sonically and those soul-chilling lonely moments, particularly in the Largo, end up a bit too close and dry; they need more distance, more ambience around them to achieve their full effect. Nevertheless, this is a great performance of a profound symphony, admirably recorded and at a staggeringly low price. Snap it up.