Symphony No.8 in C minor, Op.65
Russian National Orchestra
Recorded in June 2005 in DZZ Studio 5, Moscow
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: September 2006
CD No: PENTATONE CLASSICS
Duration: 66 minutes
Paavo Berglund has conducted this epic war-time symphony many times – it was completed in September 1943 – and he has found a more disturbing side to it than here. However, if the opening isn’t quite as dug into as expected, there is no doubting Berglund’s depth of response, his humanity, his awareness of the music’s introspection and tortured dissonance; also his seamless integration of sections that raises the symphony above its time and circumstances without denuding its meaning.
Focussing on the symphonic reach of the music with a long-term focus that is riveting – and in doing so finding parallels with Sibelius rather than the more usual reference to Mahler – there are, it must be said, passing disappointments in that some of the graphic aspects of the music are played down. But Berglund’s control of tension, and the Russian National Orchestra’s poise and commitment, are admirable. Berglund’s preference seems to be to unfold a musical statement rather than impose a ‘programme’; conflict and aggression are present, as is a wide dynamic range, and Berglund’s deliberate, even stoical stance envelops the listener to enact a drama all the more telling for not being sign-posted. One can be disappointed that the side drum doesn’t have enough militaristic force and that brass discords lack the last degree of sickening violence (among recent Shostakovich 8s, Rostropovich’s LSO Live account hits the mark) but the big climax is ground-out with a vengeance, the orchestra palpably involved, which makes the eerie pianissimo strings and the consoling cor anglais solo all the more telling.
This is but the first movement, of course, and Berglund is aware of what is to come. The pair of scherzos that follow may not be as sardonic or as hard-hitting as they can (or should) be, but Berglund’s uncommon appreciation of the music is enthralling (just as the clarity and blend of the string parts in the vast opening movements is, antiphonal violins and left-positioned double basses helping the cause, and coming into their own, again, in the shadowy Largo fourth movement, a labyrinth of slow-moving lines that seem both tragic and hopeful) and with a rise in temperature and tension that has an overwhelming rightness. From that ambiguous passacaglia comes the finale that will end on a question mark. What next? The view seems hopeful if tinged. Berglund doesn’t press the optimism of the faster music; rather, with some pungent (and rather too closely observed) woodwinds, Berglund makes the traversal somewhat gawky – life is not easy – if not without a shapeliness and expressive ‘pressure points’ that burn into the listener’s consciousness.
One of the successes of this recording is the feeling that these are unedited takes (the occasional studio noise remains as do some imperfections in the playing, none of which matters in the face of the musical gravitas) – the ebb and flow of paragraphs and climactic tension are organic and have a build-quality commensurate with the concert hall. The sound itself is not so conclusive, however; it’s a little harsh in the loudest fortissimos and the bass foundation isn’t quite full enough, and the instruments at the rear of the (maybe too ambient) studio can seem just a little distant. But all the scoring is there to be heard, and when there is a lack of impact it is more likely to be at Berglund’s behest; he is not one to spoil the whole for a short-lived ‘thrill’.
The bigger picture of this performance is Berglund’s authority and integrity and his ability to see a work whole; as such it has something crucial to a recording of anything – for the listener to want hear it again and to get a buzz before doing so and having the instinct that future playing will only intensify what is already an engrossing experience.