The Eighth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich, which was performed last night by the National Symphony and Mstislav Rostropovich, stands almost hidden in the shadows of the better-known symphonies that preceded and followed it. It is one of Shostakovich's least performed works -- for reasons are easy to detect. It is demanding in style and technique, and it does not make nearly as spectacular an effect as some of the others -- at least not at the end, which fades out in a sigh of quiet resignation rather than storming its way to a climactic shout of triumph or defiance.
For audiences, it does not have the anecdotal appeal of the Seventh, which was composed during the siege of Leningrad, or the Fifth, which was written in answer to an attack on the composer by Stalin himself. It lacks the exuberant vitality of the Ninth or the 15th, as well as the stark drama of the 14th, in which the composer stares death itself in the eye.
It is a war symphony, like the Seventh and Ninth, but it was written in the middle of the war (premiered in December 1943) when the keynote was hanging on with grim determination rather than facile heroics. It is essentially an elegy, with a prevailing mood of quiet sadness. At times, it has a lot of color and energy, but never anything that could be mistaken for joy.
But last night at the Kennedy Center, Rostropovich and his orchestra made an eloquent case for the Eighth Symphony. Rostropovich brought to the music a total involvement that can always be felt when he plays the works of his friend and mentor. Vitality was easily achieved in the fast sections, where the percussionists earned at least a month's salary in a single evening, but the most impressive part of the performance was the way tension was maintained in the slow passages. The fourth movement still seemed a bit longer than it needed to be, but that was the composer's problem more than the performers'.
The evening opened with Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, brilliantly and sensitively interpreted by pianist Bella Davidovich. The performance was fluent and strongly accented, but the playing lacked some of the polish and intense dedication heard in the Shostakovich.
Yesterday was Rostropovich's 59th birthday, but the fact received no formal attention during the concert, though a little girl did run down to the stage to give him a birthday greeting during the final standing ovation. At the morning rehearsal before the concert, however, the orchestra surprised the maestro by breaking into "Happy Birthday to You" on the first downbeat of the Rachmaninoff. There were also birthday pastries and champagne at the rehearsal. Rostropovich was also surprised during the rehearsal by 40 second-grade students from Lafayette Elementary School, who brought him flowers and a banner that read "Happy Birthday, Slava."