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Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 10 (1924-1925) [32:03]
Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 14 ‘To October’ (1927) [20:02]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 20 ‘The First of May’ (1929)
Netherlands Radio Choir
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Mark Wigglesworth
rec. October 2006 (No. 1), October 2010 (Nos. 2 & 3), Music
Centre for Dutch Radio & Television, Studio MCO5, Hilversum,
Pdf booklet with sung texts included (Cyrillic and English)
Formats: MP3, 16- & 24-bit lossless
Could this be a glimpse into the future of recorded music?
BIS have begun to offer downloads of their new releases, giving
collectors the chance to hear them without delay. For instance
I was able to access and start reviewing Kalevi Aho’s three
chamber symphonies and the Flor/Malaysian Philharmonic Dvořák
Seventh within minutes of them appearing at eclassical.com.
And although these downloads can be had as basic mp3s, BIS now
routinely offer them in lossless 16- and 24-bit form as well.
I tend to opt for the highest resolution, and that’s what I’ve
done here. You can also download booklets and inlay cards.
Those who download music on a regular basis may wish to skip
this preamble, but for those who are still sceptical I’d suggest
that at the very least downloading music is a valuable adjunct
to collecting the discs themselves. In some cases – Universal’s
trial of high-res downloads via Linn’s website, for instance
– vintage recordings are being restored to the catalogue in
superbly remastered form. The downside is that one needs the
right equipment to play these files – there are free media players
available on the web for both PC and Mac – and perhaps a stand-alone
DAC to crunch the numbers before your hi-fi takes over.
There’s no substitute for the physical product, though, and
while I applaud BIS and others for offering us tantalising new
choices I hope the silver disc stays with us for a good while
yet. But in the spirit of this new venture – and mindful that
many people now listen to music on their computers – I downloaded
this new Shostakovich album within a few hours of its release
and decided to review it on an iMac using the free Songbird
media player feeding the signal into the very portable HRT Headstreamer,
an asynchronous-USB DAC capable of handling files up to 96kHz.
Plug in a decent pair of headphones and we’re ready to go.
Before we do, just a reminder about Mark Wigglesworth’s Shostakovich
cycle so far. The earliest discs in the series were recorded
with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, but more recently
he’s switched to this Dutch radio orchestra, whose playing in
Nos. 4, 8, 9, 11, 12 and 13 – all SACDs – has set new standards
for these works. As for the interpretations, I’m happy to say
Wigglesworth’s Shostakovich is deeply satisfying, shedding new
light on works we think we know so well. How, I wondered, would
he tackle the first three symphonies, the patriotic crowd-pleasers
– Nos. 2 and 3 – often derided as Shostakovich’s weakest.
The First Symphony, written when the composer was just 18, has
been fortunate on record. Apart from Kondrashin’s legendary
cycle for Melodiya we have fine versions from the likes of Haitink,
Barshai, Rostropovich and Sanderling. Haitink is a long-time
favourite of mine, so I chose that as my comparative version.
Certainly, he has the benefit of the LPO in terrific form, the
first movement woodwind passages as perky as one could wish
for. Rhythms are beautifully sprung and there’s a freshness
and spontaneity to the playing that I’ve always admired.
Firing up the Wigglesworth I was immediately struck by the more
equivocal nature of his reading; true, there’s that same alertness
but it’s not quite so innocent, the bass-drum grumbles more
of a portent than usual. The playing of the Dutch orchestra
is full of unexpected colour and nuance, and the recording has
enormous range and impact. There’s also a delicious edge to
the percussion and a general spaciousness that makes Haitink
sound a little close and bright by comparison. But the
real thrill is that Wigglesworth digs so much deeper than most,
and sometimes it’s as if we’re hearing this music anew. It’s
a defining characteristic of his other recordings in the series
and augurs well for the rest.
It’s swings and roundabouts in the remaining three movements,
the scurrying LPO strings and mercurial piano part in the second
most impressive. By contrast Wigglesworth is far more engaging,
the quieter moments freighted with more feeling, the piano less
immediate by no less infectious. There’s also an element of
slapstick that Haitink underplays. Both are splendid in the
bitter-sweet Lento, but the mahogany richness of the BIS recording
invests the music with a warmth and lustre I’ve not heard before.
And the epiphanies don’t stop there, structures more rugged
and progress more implacable than ever. The fourth movement
is no less eventful, Wigglesworth’s phrasing and pace designed
to extract the most from this multi-layered finale.
I wouldn’t want to be without Haitink in the First, but Wigglesworth’s
is by far the more intense and forensic reading; he’s helped
in no small measure by a sophisticated and hugely satisfying
recording that’s easily on a par with the other SACDs in the
series. The final bars, with those muscular drum thwacks, are
simply glorious. And glory – in part at least – is what the
Second Symphony is about. A hymn to the 1917 Revolution it has
the potential to be a banal piece, but Mark Elder’s BBCSO version
– recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall in 1996 and subsequently
issued as a freebie with the BBC Music Magazine – changed
I listened to this and the Haitink version, the latter very
well played – almost too well – but lacking the elemental
joy and raw energy that Elder finds in the second – choral –
segment. That said, the first part is most sensitively shaped
and atmospherically recorded. Oddly, the deep rumble at the
start of the work isn’t quite as arresting in Wigglesworth’s
hands, but once again there’s an airiness to his reading that
seems to reveal so much more of the music. I’ve rarely heard
this symphonic edifice built so carefully, brick by brick, but
the effect is utterly compelling. The stereo spread in the BIS
recording is very convincing and individual instruments are
easy to locate in the soundstage; it certainly has the finest,
most throat-grabbing sound of all.
The second section of Elder’s reading is hard to beat – it sounds
pretty good too, even though it’s live – and here I must disqualify
Haitink, whose singers are much too close and aggressive for
my tastes. Wigglesworth’s siren is very well caught and the
Dutch choir sing idiomatically and with a palpable sense of
occasion. The joyful antiphons are crisp and clear and the work
builds to a most thrilling – and tasteful – climax. But then
that’s Wigglesworth’s way; he really does know how to balance
out the banalities in Shostakovich and get the mood of this
music just right. Would I take his Second over Elder’s uniquely
gripping one? Probably not, but I’d be loath to part with either.
Not surprisingly, Wigglesworth’s liner-notes are a model of
clarity and good sense, and he draws attention to the fact that
Shostakovich intended the Third Symphony to be a token of support
for workers the world over. Thinly disguised propaganda or just
honest fellow feeling? I’ll leave that for others to decide.
In any event Haitink brings a bright, festive air to the piece
that seems entirely apt, the LPO trumpets, trombones and percussion
in scintillating form. He’s also more urgent and visceral here
than he is in the Second, the recording weightier and more comfortable
as well. Goodness, I’d quite forgotten how good this version
is, but then one of the joys of reviewing is that it leads one
to reappraise – and rediscover – forgotten recordings.
So how does Wigglesworth fare in this symphony? He’s certainly
not as unbridled as Haitink, nor are his players as individually
virtuosic, but he instructs where his rival entertains. Wigglesworth
shades dynamics more finely and mixes his colour palette to
create more subtle hues. But that’s not achieved at the expense
of momentum, the music moving swiftly – and with plenty of animation
– towards its choral finale. As always the recording impresses
with its fidelity and range, making it hard to believe it’s
a humble 44.1kHz original. The side and bass drums are played
with great gusto, that darkly resonant tam-tam thrillingly caught.
Ditto Wigglesworth’s transported chorus, which brings the symphony
to a jaunty, spirited close. And goodness, how easy it is to
hear the words, and how authentic they sound; Ilia Belianka,
the language coach, must take a bow at this point.
If I were reviewing this album for Brian Wilson’s Download Roundup
I’d have no hesitation in nominating it a Download of the Month.
There’s just so much to engage with – and marvel at – in these
performances that I must do the same here. Even in what might
seem less than optimal reviewing conditions the artistic and
sonic virtues of this new recording simply blaze forth. It’s
a triumph for all concerned and proof, if it were needed, that
Wigglesworth’s almost complete Shostakovich cycle is one of
the finest – and most consistently satisfying – in the catalogue.
Onward the 15th!
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