Leonard Slatkin-A Conductor Comes To A Coda

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Leonard Slatkin-A Conductor Comes To A Coda

Post by stenka razin » Sun Jul 06, 2008 6:57 am

Anne Midgette-Washington Post-July 6th, 2008

Leonard Slatkin is temperamentally nervous. When he takes the stage to conduct, he walks out rapidly, slightly hunched, his head thrust forward, as if moving through a gantlet and trying to protect himself from the needling arrows of thousands of watching eyes. In person, in his office at the Kennedy Center, he sits back in a pose of assumed relaxation, his soft Muppet face marked with thick white eyebrows and a sharp line of a mouth, and chats.

But he skitters across topics, anticipating the criticism that may be lurking behind every question, mentioning it, steering away from it, then returning to it to show that he is not steering away from it, until one is left with the impression that outside criticism, despite his protests to the contrary, matters to him very much indeed.

The general impression is that conducting is a difficult metier for a man who describes himself as having been chronically shy in his youth. The particular impression, as Slatkin talks about his 12-year tenure at the head of the National Symphony Orchestra (which concludes with a gala concert tonight), is of encountering someone in the final throes of a failing marriage, going over ground that has been trodden many times before, prodding the scars of old wounds that still have a tired ache.

"It was probably time to go," he says.

"I know inside of me," he adds, "that I could have been better."

So what happened?

Slatkin the conversationalist is like Slatkin the conductor: You get a lot of material, flecked with flashes of apparent revelation that recede as quickly as they appear. Talking about one subject, his firefly mind is already on to the next one.

These days, that next subject is usually the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, where he becomes music director in the fall, and which he speaks of in the star-struck tones of a new lover. Detroit is wonderful. In Detroit, he will have a finger in every pie: reimagining the orchestra's youth programs, revamping its Web site.

"We're reaching a whole element," he says of his vague but ambitious plans to extend arts education in his new position. "Things I wished I could have done here, and I probably could have but I didn't do a good enough job at it."

He is certainly not shying away from self-castigation.

The story of Slatkin and the NSO has been oft-told in the media, here and in the other cities where he is establishing artistic footholds: Detroit; Nashville, where he became music adviser to the Nashville Symphony in 2006; London, where he led the BBC Symphony Orchestra for four less-than-halcyon years and is now principal guest conductor with the venerable, though B-list, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Pittsburgh, where he is about to start a stint as principal guest conductor.

In a nutshell: A superstar who elevated the St. Louis Symphony into what Time magazine called one of the 10 best orchestras in America, noted for his easy populist touch and conversational tone with audiences, Slatkin came to Washington in the footsteps of Mstislav Rostropovich and improved discipline, appointed new players and put the "national" back in National Symphony with dozens of contemporary and 20th-century American works.

"I think Leonard did a really, really wonderful job building the orchestra," says Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center. "We owe him a debt of gratitude, also for bringing different repertory to the orchestra and helping our audience understand works."

But the juggernaut seemed to lose steam. Slatkin and the NSO failed to make the mark on the American landscape that Slatkin and St. Louis had done, and, particularly in the standard European repertory, the idea began to spread that Slatkin was phoning it in.

"There was a period when I can easily say I wasn't doing a very good job," he says, apparently referring to the early years of the new century. He was not alone in this estimation.

In the New York Times, Bernard Holland said of a 2004 NSO performance of Beethoven's Ninth that "the playing itself was nondescript, competent, perhaps a little tired." A year later, Washington Times critic T.L. Ponick mentioned "one veteran concertgoer who confided that she never would attend another NSO concert as long as Mr. Slatkin remained at the helm."

Slatkin, 63, has, of course, had to address the perception that his time in Washington did not appear to go well: Within the space of a few years, he went from being a whiz kid to not even being seriously considered for recent vacant music directorships around the country: Philadelphia, Dallas, Pittsburgh, New York, Chicago. (His move from the National Symphony Orchestra, where he makes $1.2 million according to the company's last tax statement, to Detroit, where he will probably make less, is not a clear career advancement, although it's a far better step than he was expected to take as little as a year ago.)

His story line: midlife crisis. "Many personal issues were getting in the way of music," he explains, obliquely referring to episodes such as the relationship with the percussionist Evelyn Glennie that produced an explicitly flirtatious sequence of e-mails, some of which made it into the press after they were found by her husband. (Slatkin's own third marriage, to the soprano Linda Hohenfeld, is also coming to an end.)

With the orchestra, "I just couldn't communicate," he says. "In a couple of cases, there might have been a piece or two when I was not as prepared as I usually am, and the orchestra could see that in two seconds. But I overextended myself; it was silly. I was doing so much, and not giving myself the time to digest it." As he tells it, this bad period lasted about two years but still colors his relationship with the orchestra.

To an objective listener coming in at the end of his tenure, his performances with the NSO have certainly given the impression that something is not quite working. The first nights of programs are audibly under-rehearsed, though it is a shame that it is only the first nights that get reviewed; if one chances to return for a repeat performance of the same program (as I did for David Del Tredici's "Final Alice" in May), one may find that things have improved dramatically within a couple of days.

Beyond that, he generally gives the impression of fluency rather than profundity, and the orchestra sometimes seems not to care. He is effective in his signature American pieces because he is best at activity and complexity: Del Tredici, Christopher Rouse. But he is not someone you turn to for profound meditation. His modus operandi is to do a lot, quickly.

Take the festivals he did with the NSO. "When we did these festivals, we were doing two to three programs a week," he says. "It wasn't about accuracy or anything like that, it was about trying to get a subject across." In other words, quantity and variety take precedence over musical quality.

He cites some of the eclectic repertory from the 2002 festival "Journey to America," which focused on immigrant composers: Dohnanyi's "American Rhapsody," Dvorak's "American Flag." "You're never going to hear these pieces again," he says, "and probably you shouldn't, but it was a chance to showcase repertoire like that." (The Post's then-critic, Tim Page, basically agreed, saying that the "program looked far more interesting on paper than it proved in the execution.")

This is Slatkin's strength, or weakness: He excels on paper. He is great at coming up with unusual ideas, talking to the audience, sitting in on planning meetings and looking at Web sites in Detroit, glad-handing patrons at fundraisers in St. Louis. In fact, he is outstanding at all the parts of the music director's job that aren't about making music. (He is currently writing a book on exactly this topic.)

The things that make top European conductors shy away from American music directorships -- the fundraising and community activities that have been cited as a reason Daniel Barenboim left Chicago, or that seemed difficult for Mariss Jansons in Pittsburgh and Yuri Temirkanov in Baltimore -- are just the things he likes.

And one problem Slatkin had in Washington is that these are not things he is called on to do at the NSO. The orchestra, supported by the Kennedy Center, does not have to worry about its funding, or revamp its own Web site. This would seem to make it a plum assignment for someone eager to focus on the music. But Slatkin feels his hands were tied.

"It's what I'm good at," he says of fundraising. "And I wanted to be more involved in it. But I couldn't. . . . I think the whole time I was here I was never out on any fundraising call whatsoever." Plenty of conductors grouse about having to raise money; Slatkin may be the only one to complain about not getting to do enough.

Detroit, a sound orchestra in a city that needs a revitalizing presence, may be a better fit than Washington for Slatkin's aspirations to be a kind of cultural mayor. Indeed, the NSO may emerge as a lacuna in a splashy, entertainment-focused career.

It is a funny twist of circumstance that Slatkin, a prolific recording artist, happened to be at the NSO exactly during the fallow period in the industry when hardly any American orchestras were recording. In the past few years, recordings have helped rehabilitate the conductor's reputation. His 2005 CD of William Bolcom's "Songs of Innocence and Experience" led to two Grammys for Slatkin and an ongoing relationship with the Naxos label; he won two more Grammys this year for Joan Tower's "Made in America" on the same label with the Nashville Symphony. But the recorded legacy of his NSO years extends to only a handful of releases. (He will record "Final Alice" -- but with Nashville.)

He leaves behind him an orchestra of raw potential that needs more focus, whose players are audibly eager for the European repertory and approach that Ivan Fischer, the principal conductor for the next two years, will bring them. "I do know they [the NSO] are playing quite well," says Gideon Toeplitz, the former managing director of the Pittsburgh Symphony. "He's not leaving an orchestra in a shambles."

One imagines Slatkin departing from Washington with his signature walk, head down, shoulders hunched, leaving American music in the hands of Marin Alsop at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Alsop shares Slatkin's taste in composers and, like him, defends her not always top-flight conducting behind an unimpeachable barricade of contemporary, accessible, American works.

"It's interesting over there," he says of Baltimore, where he will conduct for the first time next season (he was contractually barred from appearing there while at the NSO). While Alsop is in Baltimore, he says, "in a way I still feel like I'm here. While she's over there I'm not concerned about American music."

And after all, he is in this field only to please himself. "I never really think about" reviews, he says, "because ultimately I know when I've done okay and when I've not."

Funny thing, though: He seems to remember a reviewer's every mistake. He is still citing what he claims were errors in a Washington Post review of 2001.

Criticism doesn't matter? Maybe not. But you come away with the impression that, whatever you think of his music, it is impossible, from Leonard Slatkin's point of view, to love him enough.


Re: Leonard Slatkin-A Conductor Comes To A Coda

Post by TopoGigio » Sun Jul 06, 2008 7:20 am

Norman Lebrecht wrote: September 11, 2002
Leonard Slatkin - Last Night of the Proms

On 11 September last year, the BBC Symphony Orchestra's chief conductor, Leonard Slatkin, was in a London taxi preparing to write his Last Night of the Proms speech. He heard of the attacks over the driver's radio. At that moment two players in his other orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, were driving past the Pentagon as the plane crashed in. He called home on his mobile to find out if his wife and son were safe, but all connections were down.

In a daze, he continued composing his curtain speech, knowing the world had changed and the concert might have to be abandoned. The soloist, Frederica von Stade, was grounded in America. John Adams's piece A Short Ride in a Fast Machine would have to go, as would Constant Lambert's jolly Rio Grande. Slatkin offered to step aside, let someone else conduct. "I couldn't have done a traditional Last Night," he recalls. "I wasn't in a party mood."

Next morning, with Proms director Nicholas Kenyon, he constructed a restrained and dignified Last Night around the unifying finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and the Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber, the music America plays at presidential funerals. "There was concern at the BBC," relates Slatkin, "that some people (in the Royal Albert Hall) might want the usual shindig. I said, 'I have got to know people in the arena. Let me see if I can't get word out to them to control their forces.' Well, they got the word out. I have never heard the American anthem sung with such fervour. It was the most emotional night I have ever spent in a concert hall." Afterwards, alone in his dressing room, he wept on the phone with his wife and child, who had heard the concert live in America.

The following day he flew home on a friend's private jet to conduct a consolatory concert for families of Pentagon victims. "I landed in a different country from the one I had left. People came to the concert in army fatigues - with children, bewildered." While other maestros cancelled engagements, pleading flight chaos and family pressures, Slatkin swung into shuttle mode, determined to do his duty in both great capitals.

The mission continues. He flew into London last Friday to rehearse last night's Prom, back to Washington on Sunday. On Monday he led the NSO in the nation's memorial concert, to be televised across the States tonight, with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Gloria Estefan, Placido Domingo and Enrique Iglesias. The moment he put the baton down, he was whisked off to catch the London flight and conduct Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony, "a shattering piece", before devoting the rest of the week to rehearsing the Last Night. "I thought I was over it," he sighs, "but it's all coming back, like a replay. We've altered the ([Last Night) sequence, so that not all the frivolity comes in one chunk and gets out of hand. We are doing the Britten version of the national anthem, very beautiful and restrained."

The year's stress has left its mark. Slatkin's wavy brown hair has turned gossamer-white and his eyes are crinkled with more than mere bonhomie. At 57, he stoops slightly beneath burdens of public office. In London he may be just another off-the-shelf conductor, but in Washington the NSO music director is, ex officio, music master to the masters of the universe.

Bill Clinton summoned him to the White House for a baton lesson. "He was due to conduct the Stars and Stripes at the rededication of our concert hall, so I went to the Oval Office and said, 'Let's see what you can do.' I could see immediately that he knew the moves - he'd conducted a school band. So I said, 'Mr President, start with a small beat and gradually increase.' He asked nervously, 'Are they gonna watch me?' I said, 'You - they'll watch.'"

His access to power is free and easy. He planned educational projects with Hillary Clinton and is now making friends with Laura Bush, a frequent concert-goer.

"You never know who's going to come to your dressing room after a concert," he reports. "The Kennedy clan come quite often. Colin Powell (US Secretary of State) - all the time. Condaleeza Rice quite a lot." He is persuading Rice, the National Security Adviser and a trained concert pianist, to play a concerto with the NSO - "something to raise the profile of the arts" - provided she is not bunkered into a war with Iraq.

HiS London job, by comparison, lacks lustre. Four months ago, the BBC announced that his contract would not, by mutual consent, be renewed after 2004. Neither side said why. Slatkin, unfailingly transparent, puts it down to cultural confusion. "The difference between running an orchestra in America and here," he ventures, "is that in America you are totally in charge. I'm used to taking responsibility. Here, I was not responsible for choosing guest conductors and soloists, even for some of my own programmes. Did I really want to conduct a whole weekend of Schnittke? No. But I did it."

He found himself caught up in BBC in-fighting. He complains of "agendas within the organisation, different factions, some wanting the BBC to go one way, some the other". No foreigner, he notes, has ever lasted more than four years as chief conductor.

"Maybe they had trouble adapting to the system. It takes time to turn an orchestra around. In Washington it was five years before it felt like my orchestra. Here I wasn't given the chance. They said a few months ago, 'This is not what we're looking for.' I said, 'I'm struggling, too.' Would I have liked to stay on longer? Yeah."

The BBC, for its part, was miffed by his press gaffes over Proms jingoism (he said that some songs were too bombastic) and what women should wear in orchestras (to cover flabby arms). Crucially, it refused to take up his radical ideas. "I argued that the BBC's role in arts education should be vastly increased," he maintains. "If anybody has the technology to do it, they have. Schools are phasing it out. Unless the institutions provide it in substance, civilisation will go to hell."

But where in Washington he talks to the President and sees action, in London he only once got to meet the BBC's director-general, Greg Dyke, at the party after his BBC SO opening concert. He is rueful rather than bitter, and notes a change of atmosphere since his departure was announced. "In the last coupla months," he beams, "the orchestra and I have moved on to a real common wavelength. I'm having a good time. Maybe it'll be easier for me to achieve things outside the role of chief conductor
TL Ponick wrote: (The Washington Times)
The year 1994 was an auspicious one for the National Symphony Orchestra. That fall, Leonard Slatkin conducted the ensemble in his first ever appearance here as music director designate. The town buzzed with anticipation, hoping for a new look for the orchestra, an updated repertoire and more involvement by the orchestra in the community.
The maestro did not disappoint.
By coincidence, that fall also began this critic's stint as a musical writer for The Washington Times. It proved a sterling opportunity to witness firsthand the changes in the NSO as they unfolded.
Almost immediately after formally taking the helm two years later, Mr. Slatkin aggressively recruited first-rate musicians, diversified the NSO's repertoire and educational outreach efforts and, most notably, involved himself as an adviser in the successful renovation of the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall, which resulted in a richer, warmer sound for the ensemble.
Leonard Slatkin, outgoing music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted his last regular season concerts with the NSO this weekend. The controversial maestro is headed to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
The early Slatkin years were heady, exciting and sometimes controversial. After the turn of the century, however, things soured between the maestro and the NSO organization. The result: The NSO chose not to renew his contract when it expired at the end of this season.
This weekend, Mr. Slatkin conducted his last regular season concerts with the NSO. His program (pure Slatkin through and through) offered something old (Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72a), something relatively new (Dmitri Shostakovich's rarely heard Cello Concerto No. 2, Op. 126, dating from 1966), and something All-American (Aaron Copland's Symphony No. 3), one of the works he conducted during his 1994 appearance.
While the Thursday evening performance's Beethoven could have been a bit more crisp, the more modern works on the program were right on target. The Shostakovich concerto is an introspective, sometimes vinegary work, whose agonized cello part depicts a lonely artist whose existential act of heroism is simple survival in a hostile world.
Fabulous young cellist Sol Gabetta attacked this challenging music with great passion, enveloping her instrument like a willowy reincarnation of the late Jacqueline du Pre.
The concert closed with an electric performance of Mr. Copland's grandly conceived, brashly American Symphony No. 3 (1947), which incorporates the composer's iconic "Fanfare for the Common Man" in its finale. Mr. Slatkin chose to conclude the work with a triumphal coda Leonard Bernstein had persuaded the composer to cut - a seemingly appropriate final statement from this controversial maestro who is leaving the NSO a demonstrably finer instrument than the one he inherited.
Following Saturday evening's sold-out gala farewell concert, Mr. Slatkin was scheduled to depart to become music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and principal guest conductor for the Pittsburgh and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras. As yet, no permanent replacement is in the wings for the NSO.
Goodbye to NSO with the CoplandCoda to the AmericanSymphony!!!
Last edited by TopoGigio on Mon Jul 07, 2008 1:05 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: Leonard Slatkin-A Conductor Comes To A Coda

Post by sfbugala » Sun Jul 06, 2008 8:48 pm

I hope Detroit will be a better fit for him. As a native of St. Louis, I can't help be fond of Slatkin, even though at his worst, he can be pretty cheesy.

Not too many people hold it against him, but I think he could've handled his departure here a little better. Initially, he announced he was stepping down as Music Director of the SLSO to devote himself to family and stick to guest conducting. Soon afterwards, he was appointed director of the NSO. Somehow, I didn't trust much of what he said after that.

It may take some digging, but I believe there's a quote to a Washington newspaper where he confessed that a lot of the modern music he did wasn't very good. (Now, whose fault is that? The person who wrote it, or the person who programmed it?)

Affairs in the classical world aren't new, but the whole Evelyn Glennie thing was just so weird.

Despite all this weirdness, I think Slatkin could rebound and hit his stride again. We he's "on," I think he's very good. My biggest problem with him goes back to the modern music. It's not that he does it. It's that he does some stuff he doesn't seem to believe in. In contrast, the SLSO's current director, David Robertson, has done some incredibly thorny works. However, I firmly believe he sincerely enjoys the music, and more importantly...understands it. He only programs works he wants to lead.

I look forward to hearing anyone who gets to hear Slatkin in Detroit.

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Re: Leonard Slatkin-A Conductor Comes To A Coda

Post by GK » Sun Jul 06, 2008 11:00 pm

Interesting that Slatkin admitted that he didn't do his best in the early 2000s implying that he was over committed. But isn't he over committed now as music director in Detroit as well as involvements with the Royal Philharmonic and Louisville Symphony?


Re: Leonard Slatkin-A Conductor Comes To A Coda

Post by TopoGigio » Tue Jul 08, 2008 3:18 pm

About 8th Shostakovich (and Slatkin) ,Mark Jordan wrote:
‘Shostakovich: Symphony No.8 in C minor, Op. 65’
An SACD review by Mark Jordan

Recordings like this don’t come along very often. Buy it. Here’s why.
First of all, Shostakovich was a major composer of the twentieth century, and his ‘Symphony No. 8’ is arguably his greatest work. The conductor of this release stated many years ago that he believes that in the future Shostakovich will be regarded as highly as Beethoven, and as the years go by, his assessment is starting to look more and more prescient. What’s more is that this conductor was also a personal friend of the composer. As if that weren’t enough, he has recorded the work before, but this time supersedes his earlier performance in assurance and gravity. When you throw in the fact that LSO Live has captured this in recorded sound that supersedes even their finest previous efforts, you are left with a disc which is among the finest of this – or any – year.

Shostakovich’s ‘Eighth’ is one of his great wartime symphonies. It is a glowering, towering monster of a piece that builds up to devastating climaxes only to leave you shell-shocked by the blank, shaky end. It isn’t sweet, happy music, but it is cathartic like little else in all of music, a necessary humane counterbalance to the political and social madnesses of Shostakovich’s own day, not to mention our own. Though it has been frequently recorded, it has rarely hit the mark on disc. One of the first (and finest) performances captured on tape was Evgeny Mravinsky’s blistering 1960 performance live in London, captured in concert by the BBC and recently released on compact disc in their BBC Legends series. The performance is vintage Mravinsky: High adrenaline, fairly fast speeds, and razor-sharp execution – indeed, the demonic third movement crash into the “Largo” fourth movement must have brought some audience members to the verge of heart failure. The recorded sound isn’t quite adequate for the dazzling range of colors and dynamics which Shostakovich used, but it is in stereo and generally sounds better than what one might expect for a radio broadcast from that period. Of special historical note is that the composer was in the audience for that performance. This does not mean, however, that Mravinsky had the only approved approach to Shostakovich’s symphonies. Kurt Sanderling once recounted a story of a backstage conversation where someone started to criticize the conductor’s tempo, assuming that Shostakovich would be pleased that the speaker “knew” what the composer wanted. On the contrary, Shostakovich abruptly cut off the complainer and said, “No, let him do it at a different speed if he wants.” Thus the wide range of tempos found in Russian performances may all potentially be regarded as authentic.

Also coming out of the Soviet Union during the composer’s own lifetime was the recording by Kiril Kondrashin, made in 1967. Kondrashin goes for the glory in a fevered performance that often overwhelms the crude Soviet recording capabilities of the time. As great as it undeniably is, though, Kondrashin – like Mravinsky – has a tendency to push too hard, sprinting through passages that can only make their full monolithic impact when the conductor gives them some space. Yet another Russian conductor allowed for such space in his 1976 recording, but Kurt Sanderling was always more at home in the lyrical and sorrowful side of Shostakovich’s music, thus his ‘Eighth’ is of insufficient voltage to compete with the best, distinguished and heartfelt though it is.

The first major western recording of the work came in 1983 when Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam recorded the work for Decca as part of an ongoing Shostakovich cycle. Haitink was typically insightful in both recognizing the work of this composer’s canon of symphonies before they became generally popular and in connecting them to familiar touch points in the basic repertory such as Tchaikovsky, Mahler, and Bruckner. But as the works have grown in popularity in the last twenty years, the authentically brooding Russian manner has also grown in popularity. Thus Haitink’s approach now in retrospect looks a little poker-faced for Shostakovich’s most imposing works. He did yeoman work in bringing the pieces to a wider audience (I was among those who first met the ‘Eighth’ via Haitink), but his approach now seems too polite, too western. His blank slate works best of all in the finale of the ‘Eighth’ which is itself quite poker-faced and ambiguous in the first place. Whatever its weaknesses, Haitink’s ‘Eighth’ brought the work out in powerful and clear (albeit at times glaring) digital sound, and it can’t be denied that the work never quite took off in public esteem until such a crisp and bright recording was available. If the recording seems rather artificially manipulated today, it is hardly alone in that.

An even greater performance was recorded in the mid-1980’s, again in the Soviet Union, this time with Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra. The performance is a big-shouldered, granite-hewn monster of a performance and it achieved great intensity without resorting to break-neck tempos (though it never dawdles, either). Sadly, the recording was one of Melodiya’s early digital disasters. After the western classical companies began to record digitally with multiple microphones on multiple tracks, the Soviet government saw to it that for reasons of prestige their own engineers were given digital recording equipment. It just goes to show that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it record a symphony orchestra. It took the Soviet engineers years to learn how to use their recording equipment effectively, and before they did, they made some of the most god-awful recordings ever perpetrated upon the record-buying public. Mind you, the Shostakovich ‘Eighth’ is nowhere near as bad as the Schalk-Mahler edition of Bruckner’s ‘Fourth’ which Rozhdestvensky recorded in 1984. That was the absolute height of harsh digital glare. But the Shostakovich is still pretty bad. The dry, bright, shallow sound is frequently overloaded to the point of distortion due to the combining of multiple microphone tracks. The acoustic weirdness of the harsh fake echoes at the beginning of the third movement have to be heard to be believed. And instrumental timbres throughout tend to sound very hollow and tinny, something that might me tamed some day in the future with a judicious remastering of the original digital tapes. Additionally, all sense of hall perspective is destroyed by the multi-track spotlights. For instance, when the solo violin enters in the last movement, it sounds just as large as the rest of the orchestra playing, utterly ruining any sense of dazed introspection which the composer may have been seeking at that point. Thus the recorded sound seriously compromises Rozhdestvensky’s performance. He is one who should make a new recording of the work while he still can.

Two of the major recordings from the late 1980’s and early 1990’s finally presented Shostakovich’s ‘Eighth’ in good sound. First, RCA released a recording in 1989 of Leonard Slatkin and the Saint Louis Symphony. Then in 1994, Telarc released an even more impressive sounding recording by Yoel Levi and the Atlanta Symphony. The Slatkin featured smooth yet detailed sound which covered the entire dynamic range without splintering, with less microphone spotlighting than was normal for RCA. Indeed, the producers even went so far as to put a note in the program booklet pointing out that Slatkin insisted that the recording reproduce the dynamic range which the composer “evidently” wanted. Slatkin is to be commended for sticking to his guns, because the avoidance of aural surgery preserves more natural perspectives, letting the work make its full impact. Unfortunately, Slatkin is far too reserved to bring out the dark side of this music, and the performance ultimately underwhelms through its neutrality, even if it remains distinguished in its seriousness and its recorded sound. The Levi was a more visceral recording, but it captured the dynamic range without distorting perspectives through crude spotlighting. Levi has a touch more fire than Slatkin, but he does not seem to have the vast architecture of the piece within his grasp, pushing tempos to extremes that his orchestra cannot sustain. Levi even miscalculates the tempo of the third movement so badly that the tempo bogs down as the trombones enter because they can’t handle the fast pace.

Finally, in 1994, a successful modern recording appeared when Teldec released the first recording of the work conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich. Rostropovich had been a friend of the composer when he was young and becoming world-famous as a cellist. Even then, though, Rostropovich was showing an interest in conducting. In the intervening years, he has devoted himself more to conducting than to playing the cello, but it has taken many years for him to develop his craft as a conductor. Although there were some very successful initial recordings, there were also many awkward and stillborn ones. By the time Rostropovich recorded his Shostakovich cycle for Teldec, he had become a solid baton technician, and his ‘Eighth’ is a great performance, impulsive and red-blooded. The recorded sound, though reasonable, tended towards excess fake reverb, making the grand architecture of the ‘Eighth’ get a bit bogged down along the way. And like so many other recordings, it uses excessive spotlighting which shatters natural perspectives and isolates solo instruments and sections into artificial acoustic cul-de-sacs. Still, it remains a strong performance in tolerable sound, which is a rare enough status for any recording of this work.

Another 1994 recording of Shostakovich’s ‘Eighth’ was the one with Rudolf Barshai conducting the Cologne Radio Symphony which has only recently come to light in the wonderful bargain-priced boxed set of Barshai’s entire Shostakovich cycle on Brilliant Classics. The performance of the ‘Eighth’ is consistent with Barshai’s vision of the composer: More lyrical than epic, yet tautly classical at the same time. While not as severely drawn as Mravinsky’s performance, it is lean and powerful and is certain not to disappoint anyone who buys his box set (and for the price, who wouldn’t?). Its recorded sound is fairly bright and shallow (in the typical manner of German radio recordings), but does not feature as much intervention from the engineers as most competitors. More akin to Mravinsky’s high-pressure approach was the 2001 EMI recording by Mariss Jansons and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, a live concert recording that captures a performance of strong intensity and focus. Heinz Hall may not be one of the great concert halls, but its sound live in concert tends to be decent in most of the seats I’ve sat in over the years. On the other hand, this recording never really gives the listener a true idea what the sound of the hall is like, reverting back to multiple microphones and distorted perspectives (particularly the solo violin in the finale). In any event, the performance misses greatness despite its nobility, for Jansons drives the orchestra hard to master the technical elements. For instance, one feels that the players’ concentration in the third movement is going toward hitting all the jagged notes at the conductor’s swift tempo, and thus the build to the main climax of the symphony is underpowered. Or perhaps it is merely the pulling back of the microphones for the climax undermines its power. But the overall electricity level here is nowhere near that of Jansons’ mentor Mravinsky. Perhaps only a brutal martinet like Mravinsky could ever be capable of driving the movement that fast while still getting a visceral response from his players. After all, there must have been a reason that Mravinsky’s players referred to him amongst themselves not as “the maestro” or “the conductor,” but as “the enemy.” Jansons is far too genial (as modern conductors must be if they want to work in the business for long!) to inspire such anger and fear.

All of which brings us to the present release. If Rostropovich was an ungainly though eminently likeable conductor to begin with, he became more skillful as he progressed, earning enormous respect, even if by temperament he was never destined to be suave. Let’s face it, if he were suave, he couldn’t conduct Shostakovich’s music so masterfully, for Shostakovich crams his music full of human foibles and extremes. From the poetic to the vulgar to the profound, it’s all in there, and conductors who are willing to flesh out those implications are the ones who bring the music to full Shakespearean life. Rostropovich demonstrates that his grip over this music has increased in the ten years since he made his Teldec recording. In 1994, he rushed through the first movement, using sheer forward momentum to hold it together, and turning in the fastest timing I’ve ever seen for that movement. When he returned to it in London in November of 2004, no rushing was necessary. He had the massive grip and the confidence to take it slowly without faltering, and the London Symphony Orchestra had the muscle to maintain it. Now Rostropovich is among the slowest performers of the opening movement. Indeed, the entire recording adds almost eight minutes to the running time of the earlier performance. It is broad, epic, yet curiously vulnerable in its open emotionality. Though there’s nothing wrong with his earlier version (other than the recorded sound), no devotee of great orchestral music will want to miss this valedictory performance, especially when it comes graced with the finest recorded sound ever heard for this work, despite its origin from a live concert. (Note: The disc omits applause at the end.)

The early releases by the London Symphony’s in-house label featured accurate recordings of their concert hall, which is to say that they sounded very clear but very dry. Acoustic tinkering with the hall in 2002 improved matters considerably, giving more of a sense of air around the recorded sounds. This recording marks a new step forward for the LSO Live label, feature audiophile-quality handsomeness. One suspects that to take the improved hall acoustics to the ideal level they must have added a judiciously slight dose of artificial reverberation. If they have, then more power to them, because it works. It isn’t slathered on the way it is in so many other recordings of this work, including Rostropovich’s earlier one. There is just enough reverberation here to let this epic music breathe freely and sound out into the hall, never more impressively so than in the titanic climax where the third movement collides into the slow movement. As the climax builds, volume and thickness of sound keep piling up, but the recorded sound never turns into a shrieking bloodbath like so many other recordings which become virtually unlistenable at this point. Here, the climax is real and visceral, but not something which might harm your hearing due to gross levels of distortion. Instead, it lands three times like tons of bricks, sending a sonic shock wave from the front to surround speakers and shaking the floor of the room. All while still sounding like fresh, real instruments. But as impressive as this is, it is hardly the whole story of the recorded sound for this performance. Vast stretches of this music are quiet and desolate as a waste land, and the high-resolution recording captures the electric sense of witnessing a great performance, being part of an intense recreation of the composer’s vision. Indeed, there is no greater test of any performance than what it feels like after the initial fortes of the opening movement have subsided. Lesser performances go completely neutral, while the great ones veritably crackle over the silences with a sense of dread. And so it is here. The only peculiarity of the recording is that LSO Live has neglected to use the center front channel in their recording, thus making this multichannel recording a 4.1 (2/2.1) surround sound vehicle instead of the more standard 5.1. I’m not sure why they went this route, but stand assured that they have achieved a glorious recording without the help of that center channel.

In the end, what we are left with is a release that combines a great performance of one of the twentieth century’s most important pieces of music with a state-of-the-art recording. All on a hybrid CD/SACD disc that costs the same as a mainstream release! Bravo to everyone involved on this project: Rarely has the music lover been served so well by a commercial recording

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