BBC Legends – Evgeny Svetlanov

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.8 in C minor, Op.65

London Symphony Orchestra
Evgeny Svetlanov

Recorded on 30 October 1979 in the Royal Festival Hall, London

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: January 2007
BBCL 4189-2
Duration: 66 minutes

The problem any conductor has with the Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony is easily summed up: Mravinsky, Royal Festival Hall, 1960! A performance of such blazing, shattering intensity, by one of the greatest of conductors, that it makes all others seem tame.

In basic terms, Mravinsky takes just under an hour, whereas Svetlanov takes around 65 minutes (excluding applause and between-movement breaks). In the first movement alone there is a four-minute difference. Svetlanov’s opening is therefore very much an adagio, which works until the side drum entry is reached at the first extended climax when, apart from the LSO’s half-hearted playing, the interventions sound like an irrelevant, disconnected add-on. Nor is there sufficient string weight and attack in this climax; by 1979 the LSO was in decline and the strings’ once-striking individuality and vibrancy were seriously diminished. Throughout this opening section there is also a lack of micro-dynamic variation and emotional ebb and flow; though both here and in the rest of the symphony, Svetlanov does maintain a strict control over tempo variation, which, given the excesses of many others, is always to be welcomed.

In the brief allegro that breaks into the first movement, Svetlanov is relatively fast, but the furious, violent climax is underplayed. At the emotional heart of the movement lies a desolate cor anglais solo, which here is too comfortable. Compare it with the Mravinsky and a yawning expressive canyon opens up – rarely can an orchestral player have conveyed such mind-numbing weariness, desolation and terror in response to a climax where the massed strings and brass of the Leningrad Philharmonic shriek out with visceral intensity.

Svetlanov’s approach to the second movement Allegretto – whatever that direction means – is also leisurely, in a bull-elephant and powerfully didactic way with the woodwinds allowed to characterise far more freely than in the first movement. But there is still too little variety of expression; the burlesque and dance elements that Mravinsky effortlessly conveys are absent.

Similarly, in the Allegro non troppo there is a lack of sustained rhythmic intensity and dynamic variation, and the wild charge in the codetta, in which the timpani should exult (with Mravinsky the timpanist goes berserk!), lacks power and drive.

Given Svetlanov’s measured tempos, the Largo is unsurprisingly slow, but its rich tapestry of melodic strands is never allowed to become episodi and retains its cohesion and flow with a beautifully tranquil resolution to the final cadence. In the finale the opening is too measured. The rhythmic base remains too strict, the lightness of touch, the sense of whimsy and burlesque that Mravinsky finds eludes his compatriot. Nor can the LSO match the virtuosity of the Leningraders with its differently weighted and balanced chords in the movements’ climax.each chord while brilliantly delineating the internal lines.

As is often the case, BBC Legends relies on tapes from the British Library. The sound is very good, with only minor compression.

So a performance that is excellent, but not exceptional. But, BBC Legends remains the winner as the Mravinsky performance is on this label! BBCL 4002-2.

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