Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony a titanic triumph for the CBSO

CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★

The rousing emphatic fifth and famous bellicose ‘Leningrad’ are more popular; the wilfully idiosyncratic fourth is more daring; but a strong case can be made for Shostakovich’s eighth symphony being his greatest. This epic CBSO performance conducted by the orchestra’s associate conductor Michael Seal, with a combination of modest self-effacement, authoritative control and forensic attention to detail, would certainly have persuaded newcomers, and converted sceptics, to acknowledge the symphony’s stature. After the kaleidoscopic work finally faded into silence to its satisfyingly hard-earned C major conclusion the man sitting behind me in the stalls exclaimed, “What a beautiful ending!” It’s like a small beautiful flower blossoming on a blood-soaked battlefield. Not too fanciful an image since it was premiered in 1943 as the Russian tide turned against the Nazi invasion of the motherland. In the ironic and warily coded style Shostakovich adopted in correspondence about his music, he wrote: I am sure that it will give rise to valuable critical observations.” A grudgingly muted reception was followed in 1948 by denunciation from the cultural commissars and a ban on performances for eight years.

It’s not hard to see why. Gone are the bright colours and Soviet propaganda poster poses of the ‘Leningrad’, this is a work which honours his musical hero Mahler, where sublimity, lyricism, irony and intense maniacal violence are spliced together. The contrasts are exaggerated by Shostakovich’s top-and-bottom orchestration the CBSO’s bass section and low brass roaring out subterranean support while violins, flutes and piccolo keened and screeched like souls in agony at their highest pitches. Yet Shostakovich leavens even the most agonized and turbid music with moments of humour and little oases of calm which provided opportunities for the CBSO’s impressive wind section: Rachael Pankhurst’s consolatory cor anglais in the mammoth first movement; delightfully quirky passages for Nikolaj Henriques’ bassoon both solo and in partnership with Margaret Cookhorn’s contrabassoon; filigree flute touches and clarinet meditations. The breakneck ferocity and hysterical humour of the third movement was a reminder that Shostakovich was once a silent-movie pianist – here it was irresistible from the CBSO urged on by Seal.

I confess to preferring Rachmaninoff’s ‘Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini’ to his more famous and popular piano concertos. Gone are the rich, occasionally dense orchestration and sometimes effortful striving by soloists trying to match it. In the Rhapsody light, clarity and wit predominate and soloist Boris Giltburg was impressive in matching Rachmaninoff’s demands for coruscating passage-work – the helter-skelter variation just before the first appearance of the composer’s Dies Irae trademark – and lyricism. The famous romantic 18th variation was one to treasure from Giltburg as was the final variation’s Puck-like disappearing act. I look forward to his Rachmaninov recital at Birmingham Town Hall in November.

Norman Stinchcombe

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