Shostakovich Sym8 Silvestri ICA Classics 5176

Dmitry Kabalevsky (1904-1987)
Colas Breugnon Overture, Op 24 (1937)
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Symphony No 8 in C minor, Op 65 (1943)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Constantin Silvestri
rec. live 27 April 1961, Winter Gardens Pavillion, Bournemouth, England
ICA Classics ICAC5176 [68]

This disc is an important historical document in that it marks one of Constantin Silvestri’s earliest concerts with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in 1961. As the liner says, this relationship was transformative, taking an ensemble which had originated decades before as a municipal seaside ‘light’ orchestra and making it into an orchestra known and admired around the world. But in all fairness to the orchestra, part of this change was perceptual rather than simply ‘better’ playing. On the evidence of this 1961 live concert, there is already plenty of very fine individual and collective music-making from the orchestral members. As with most great conductors, their talent is to hone and channel those existing skills. Without doubt, Silvestri belonged to that small elite group of conductors who could inspire players and ensembles to great musical heights. For the modern day listener, this can be most easily explored through his legacy of studio recordings within the EMI/Warner “Icon” box of fifteen discs. This is by no means a complete discography – none of his concerto recordings are included for starters – but there is a good sense of his style which could be strikingly individual and exciting. The problem with these studio recordings is that they focussed on core repertoire, so only giving a partial picture of Silvestri’s range. As an appendix to those studio recordings there have been a series of live performances from Bournemouth compiled and researched by the orchestra’s former clarinettist Raymond Carpenter as well as some releases in the BBC Legends series. Carpenter was the main Silvestri archivist and wrote a book about working with him – this new release is dedicated to Carpenter’s memory. I wrote a review for MWI about a double disc release of archival recordings back in 2010 that can be read here. Other reviews of similar live Bournemouth performances can be read here. Returning to those reviews/recordings is interesting. The range of repertoire is much wider and the quality of the orchestral playing is really very good. More tellingly, the interpretations are individual and impressive without being mannered or interventionist for intervention’s sake. Clearly, Silvestri was a conductor who revelled in the extra frisson live performance brought.

So all the augurs for this new release are good. But another feature of those earlier reviews is an awareness of the audio limitations of the radio recordings and that is a major factor here. This new ICA Classics release is branded “A BBC Recording” but there is no indication whether or not the restoration engineers had access to the original BBC master tape. To my ear it sounds not – being instead an off-air mono recording (rather bizarrely listed as being “DDD”). This results in a lot of hiss – tape or carrier wave I do not know, but more critically in the great hulk of the Shostakovich a severely compressed dynamic range. Given that this work has extended sections of whispering near-silence juxtaposed with great slabs of full orchestral might, this is a genuine issue as it impacts on the character of the performance and the tension it generates. I can imagine that in the Bournemouth Winter Gardens in April 1961 this was utterly, rivetingly compelling. Especially since this work was less than two decades old and probably all but unknown to Western Orchestras and audiences alike. Of course, the Bournemouth SO was to go on in the following decade to make a series of genuinely excellent Shostakovich recordings with their next great Chief Conductor Paavo Berglund – so perhaps the seeds were sown here.

There are many genuinely fine collective and individual moments in this performance. Liner writer Harlow Robinson says; “compared to other recorded versions, Silvestri’s restrained and lyrical account is notable for its immediacy, understatement and brevity. The shortest Eighth by as many as ten minutes”. The brevity statement is patently wrong – Kondrashin’s classic Moscow PO is roughly 6 minutes quicker still, Jarvi with the SNO nip and tuck but essentially the same to name pretty much the first two alternatives that came to hand. I am not sure that the other characterisations ring true either for me. In fact Silvestri’s opening movement belongs in a select group of slower versions at 27:17 (almost identical to Barshai, longer than Haitink, Gergiev, Caetani, Nelsons, Rohzdestvensky, Rostropovitch and others). Only Kitajenko is notably slower. Silvestri’s great skill is his control of the long paragraphs. He draws the music inexorably forward and in doing so gets some excellent playing from his Bournemouth orchestra. The extended, impassioned lament for the cor anglais is wonderfully played here. But oh that compressed dynamic range and the congested distorted climaxes do for me impact on my unalloyed admiration. The central pair of faster movements are pretty standards in terms of basic tempi. Perhaps here I do miss the wild armoured-division Cossack dance that the older Soviet performances achieve. The Bournemouth brass is just a little well-mannered in contrast. Also in the third movement, Allegro non troppo is the only time the ensemble rocks a little. The fourth movement Lento passacagliais again powerfully controlled, but this is another passage that needs to be heard as performed with chilled quiet dynamics. One notable difference in this performance are the closing pages, which find a calmness and resolution in the C major conclusion that more recent performances are more ambiguous about.

Although this is a live performance, there is little or no audience noise and the recording is quickly cut off to remove any applause. In part this might be due to the compressed recording and tape hiss means that the playing obscures any noises-off there might be. I have not mentioned the concert opener of Kabalevsky’s Colas Breugnon Overture. Harlow Robinson rather dismisses Kabalevsky as a composer and Soviet apparatchik but makes a positive of Silvestri’s rather pedestrian basic tempo – as he notes a full minute slower than Reiner’s fizzing account – saying instrumental detail is revealed. But of course the old recording effectively eliminates that detail. This seems like a rare interpretative misjudgement, with the music failing to bubble or twinkle as it surely should.

So ultimately a release that is to be welcomed as further testament to the genius of Constantin Silvestri and the considerable skill of his Bournemouth players. But one that must be viewed as a historical archival document rather than any kind of library choice and as such for Silvestri collectors only.

Nick Barnard

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