SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 65; SCRIABIN: Poem of Ecstasy, Op. 54 – Leningrad Philharmonic Orch./ Yevgeny Mravinsky – Praga Digitals stereo SACD PRD/DSD 350 120, 79:00 (4/14/15) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
The 1943 Eighth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich, dedicated to conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky, expresses the composer’s spiritual anguish during WW II and his deep admiration for various symphonies in C Minor, especially those of Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler. Shostakovich chose to create a five-movement structure that begins quite slowly, proceeds with two movements that constitute a scherzo, then a passacaglia, and concludes Allegretto, in a spirit that does not especially resound with joyful triumph.
Shostakovich described the Eighth Symphony as a poem of suffering. In public he called it ‘an attempt to reflect the terrible tragedy of war,’ – a war in which twenty-seven million Soviet lives were lost. But in Testimony he elaborated: “I feel eternal pain for those who were killed by Hitler, but I feel no less pain for those killed on Stalin’s orders. I suffer for everyone who was tortured, shot, or starved to death. There were millions of them in our country before the war with Hitler began. The war brought much new sorrow and much new destruction, but I haven’t forgotten the terrible pre-war years. That is what my symphonies are about, including Number Eight.”
Much of the opening of the opening Adagio resonates with the same anguish we hear in the D minor Fifth Symphony. A huge sonata-form movement that lasts half an hour, the basic motif projects a “fate” sensibility that will becomes distorted and even militarized. The Leningrad Philharmonic demonstrates its magnificent rigor and stringent discipline in all parts, but especially in Shostakovich’s haunted string and wind line. Later, the Leningrad brass contributes its grueling exclamations. The enhanced DSD mastering of the original 12 February 1961 live radio performance intensifies the often desolate nightmare vision into a cruel theater of “unrelieved gloom,” to cite the Soviet official denunciations of the score. The English horn solo may reminisce emotionally to the Sibelius Swan of Tuonela in its lament for the dead.
“A march with elements of a scherzo,” commented Shostakovich on his relatively brief second movement Allegretto. The sonic allusions to both sarcastic Mahler and metrically angular Bartok seem apparent, though the smirks belong to Shostakovich individually. The crushing ostinati on D-flat, C, and D-flat assume a maniacal character, with the snare and flute’s mocking our sense of the mortal storm. The ensuing Allegro non troppo smacks of agitated Prokofiev, and it proceeds in the manner of an orchestral toccata. The persistent marcatissimo in brass and percussion may portray the mechanical, apocalyptic aspects of Soviet life, seemingly affirmed by the victory at Leningrad in 1942.
We segue directly into the Adagio, a brooding meditation whose canons invoke Mahler – and his own Fifth Symphony – at several points. By inexorable degrees, the music modulates to C Major for a bucolic rondo that opens with a plaintive bassoon solo. We might compare the tone of this movement with the pastoral elements in the Prokofiev Seventh Symphony. Commentators find allusions to figures from Mahler’s C Minor “Resurrection” Symphony, but this music remains earthbound, focusing on a triad built from pizzicato C, D, C. Something of the Shostakovich “vaudeville” or parody, contrapuntal element surfaces, stringent and tragically resigned, at once. Once more, percussion, snare, low bassoon, and tympani contribute to a grave contest of contradictory impulses, the very definition of the composer’s often-tormented soul.
The 1905-08 Le Poeme de l’Extase (rec. 22 December 1958) by Scriabin instantiates the composer’s personal response to the poet Vyecheslav Ivanov’s essay “The Precepts of Symbolism,” in which the artist’s solipsistic vision synthesizes a universal macrocosm. The so-called Symphony No. 4 employs the Liszt notion of “transformation of theme” in a condensed, polychromatic striving for new, liberated visions of experience represented by the solo trumpet, as it surrounded by whole tone scales, irregular metric pulsations, and aching, angular dissonances that like Wagner’s Tristan, yearn for a resolution in C Major. Typically, Mravinsky draws every stress and nuance into a performance of white heat.