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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No.9 in E flat major, Op.70 (1945) [24:44]
Symphony No.12 in D minor, Op.112 (1961) [37:38]
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Mark Wigglesworth
rec. Music Centre for Dutch Radio and Television, Studio MCO5, Hilversum, The Netherlands, December 2004 (No.9); April 2005 (No.12)
BIS-SACD-1563 [63:17] 

Mark Wigglesworth writes concisely and effectively on these works in the booklet notes to this release. However, other than showing his understanding of the social and historical context of these symphonies, he doesn’t reveal any of his personal feelings towards them. With the 9th anticipated as a paean to the glory of Stalin and the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II and the 12th commissioned as a commemoration of Lenin and the 1917 revolution, Wigglesworth points out the difficulties with which Shostakovich was presented, treading the line between satisfying public and political demands and trying to avoid compromise in his own artistic expression. In the end, Shostakovich created an abstract musical statement in the 9th; a deeply programmatic one in the 12th – the two works contrasting well on a single disc.

The Bis recording is one of admirable depth and scale, and with truly excellent playing from the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra – with 115 players the largest orchestra within the Foundation Music Centre of Dutch Radio and Television – this release comes with an almost automatic recommendation. With other releases in this growing series receiving high praise in most quarters collectors need have no qualms about supplementing their collection with this one. The only question really remaining is how this particular release stands in relation to some of the others on the market. 

With the big ‘wow’ factor ringing in your ears with a spectacular new recording like this I’m always a bit suspect – it always seems a bit too easy, the best recording being the last one has heard – wonderful, bravo, more of same please! Recalling the performances on the complete set conducted by Kondrashin and I can at least say that these new performances don’t have quite the gut-wrenching grit of those Moscow recordings which are in a category all of their own, with their own problems as well as advantages. I can also say that I prefer Wigglesworth over Haitink. Those Decca recordings – the first complete cycle recorded by Western forces – do hold a special place in the catalogue, but there must be a reason I ditched mine over the years. Haitink’s 12th is reckoned by some to be one of the best in his set, but this new one is in most regards more than its equal, and just picking out the quality of the brass and percussion in the opening Revolutionary Petrograd movement one gets a taste for something with that bit of extra zip. 

Every record label confronting these works has the looming spectre of Rudolf Barshai’s complete set on the bargain Brilliant Classics label breathing down their neck. Barshai is still hard to beat at the price, but, note for note, Bis has by far the greater clarity, a more sympathetic acoustic, a more realistic balance with the percussion - and better tuned timpani - greater refinement in winds and brass, more accurate strings – need I go on? 

Well, yes. There’s a sense of fun and energy in the Barshai recordings, especially in the 9th, that I miss with Wigglesworth. Admittedly, perhaps its not ‘fun’ as such that we should be looking for, but where Barshai is irrepressible in the Symphony No.9 Wigglesworth is light, refined, even gentle by comparison. Just take those solo trombone notes in the first movement which keep coming back – that interval of a fourth. With Wigglesworth they have the character of a motif, with Barshai they are a statement – a black twig upon which the whole wobbly edifice of the rest of the orchestra sits like a sick toad. The NRPO has plenty of weight to give later on, and with such tremendous playing it seems mean to complain. The more solemn movements, with some gorgeous instrumental solos are certainly of a very high order. Without chopping and changing between versions I suspect most of you will be more than happy, but to me this version doesn’t quite push enough beyond the comfort zone. This 9th also has to compete with Gergiev on Philips, which I can’t say I’ve heard, but would also seem a hard act to follow, knowing Gergiev. 

Comparing the Symphony No.12 and there is more of an argument in favour of Wigglesworth. Here, the quality of his band, the recording, and the conductor’s approach to the nature of the music do a great deal to elevate what many regard as one of Shostakovich’s weaker if not weakest symphonies to a level beyond which it is impossible to ignore it as a powerful symphonic gesture. With the SACD circuits helping out it is possible to discern most of what is going on, even when Shostakovich’s orchestration demands that the pots and pans are flying about all over the place, all at full volume. Wigglesworth seems to favour the broader sweep of this work, and the intensity of impassioned strings and the rich bite of the brass and percussion are given plenty of leeway – drawing the best out of both long swathes of atmospheric wandering and heavy climaxes. I particularly like his sense of the phrasing and dynamic in the last movement, The Dawn of Humanity, which has all of that sense of redemption which I’m sure Shostakovich intended. 

Summing up, if, like the Gramophone ‘Good CD Guide’ you are looking for a neat package which deals with Shostakovich’s least popular symphonies in one distinguished recording; the two they consistently overlook, then here is your solution, and a very good one it is too. If however your shelves are already groaning with versions of Shostakovich symphonies, I suspect these new recordings will not provide that ‘road to Damascus’ revelation, which conjures hidden secrets from the depths. Collectors of this cycle will already have their standing order at their local shop, and they need have no qualms about adding this disc to their shelves. Fans of spectacular sonics can also have a ball, and while the music may not always hit the highest of Shostakovich hot-spots this disc is certainly well up to the high standards we have come to expect from Bis.

Dominy Clements



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