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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) 
Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 10 (1924-1925) [32:03] 
Symphony No. 15 in A major, Op. 141 (1971) [46:16]
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Mark Wigglesworth
rec. October 2006, Music Centre for Dutch Radio and Television, Studio MCO5, Hilversum, Netherlands. DSD
BIS BIS-SACD-1643 [79:15]

It's been a long time in the making - seventeen years, I believe, since the first release in 1997 - but at last Mark Wigglesworth's Shostakovich symphony cycle is complete. I've come to the party quite lately - until relatively recently I'd only heard the Fourth and Eighth - but I did appraise the penultimate release in the series not long ago. That was a coupling of the first three symphonies (review) and it seems a little odd to find the same performance of the First reappearing so soon, now in harness with the Fifteenth.
My colleague, Dan Morgan, has long been a standard bearer for the Wigglesworth recordings - indeed, it was largely his enthusiasm that persuaded me that I ought to investigate the series - and he's already had his say about this final release in its download incarnation (review). It's only about 18 months since I reviewed this performance of the First Symphony and my feelings about it haven't changed; I still regard it as a very fine, searching performance. One difference since last time is that I'm now able to listen to the recording in SACD format and the BIS sound impresses me even more.
In the first movement Wigglesworth and his orchestra relish Shostakovich's mordant wit; the playing is consistently precise and animated. In his notes the conductor points out the parallels with the sound world of Petrushka and in a performance such as this it's not hard to envisage a puppet show. Wigglesworth mentions that as a teenager Shostakovich earned money playing the piano in silent movie theatres and, it is said, got the sack for laughing too much at Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. That's very believable when you listen to this music. In a super performance the solo clarinet, bassoon, trumpet and violin all make pithy, skilled contributions.
In the following movement the passages of fast music are very nimbly done while a shadowy character is imparted to the slower episodes. The third movement is the first in what was to be a long line of dramatic, eloquent slow movements in Shostakovich's symphonic output. Wigglesworth leads a taut, probing performance which is characterised by towering climaxes and, even more so, by penetrating realisations of the many subdued passages; this is gripping stuff in his hands. Wigglesworth is excellent in the transition from the third movement to the fourth, bringing out the dark power in the music to perfection. This is a dark, anguished passage: can it really be the invention of an eighteen-year-old? A similar thought is prompted by the plaintive cello solo after the rhetorical timpani solo. The allegro sections are driven along frantically, the energy levels high. This is a tremendously strong performance of the movement and, indeed, of the whole symphony. Our appreciation is heightened further by the recording which is stunning in its immediacy; as an example, listen to the pivotal timpani solo in the finale (track 4, 6:00), though the way in which, elsewhere, hushed detail is captured by the engineers is just as impressive.
In some ways I regret that it wasn't possible to provide a new coupling to accompany the recording of the Fifteenth Symphony but, even if the recording of the First Symphony appeared less than two years ago there's a compelling logic for reviving it here. The pairing of the composer's first and last symphonies has a great deal to commend it. When I first reviewed Wigglesworth's account of the First I wrote that I was struck by a comment he makes about the influence of Petrushka and, indirectly, perhaps of Pierrot Lunaire on that score: 'the disconcerting idea of human beings as puppets, with their actions manipulated by unseen string-pullers from on high, was one that stayed with the composer right the way through to his final symphony, written almost fifty years later.' Now, as he turns to the Fifteenth, Mark Wigglesworth underlines the links between the two works not only in his performances but also in what he says about the music. He reminds us that Shostakovich is reported to have said of the first movement that the music 'describes childhood, a toy-shop with a cloudless sky above'. Wigglesworth then extends the metaphor by quoting an earlier, grim remark of the composer's: 'We are all marionettes'. More controversially, perhaps, he suggests that 'Perhaps it was not unconnected in Shostakovich's mind that the USSR's largest toy store stood just across the street from the Lubyanka, the infamous KGB torture headquarters.' Is that stretching the argument too far? I'll leave that to you to decide but I find it an interesting and, indeed, provocative idea.
I started off my listening to the Fifteenth with the intention of making comparisons. I noted, for instance, that in the first movement Wigglesworth paces the music intelligently. Kurt Sanderling, in his 1978 recording (Berlin Classics) achieves a similar intensity at a comparable pace whereas Kirill Kondrashin, in his 1974 reading (review), is much swifter - dangerously so, I think, risking the appearance of skittishness. I had also intended to bring into the comparison the more recent recordings by Bernard Haitink and Vasily Petrenko, both of which I compared not long ago (review). However, as I continued to listen to Wigglesworth my desire to compare this point or that faded; I just wanted to absorb his performance on its own merits.
I disagree very mildly with Dan Morgan, who thought that the first movement takes a while to warm up. The interpretation seems quite dark to me right from the start; notice that, for instance, not so much in the bassoon solo at 0:47 as in the way Wigglesworth gets the string players to voice the little figurations that surround that solo. Superficially, a good deal of the music in this movement may appear perky but in this performance there's no real perkiness. The playing is acutely pointed and you feel that even if you're not listening to a dance of death you're certainly hearing a very grim dance. As was the case with the companion symphony, the recorded sound is superb - listen to the thwacks on the bass drum at 4:20. The sardonic nature of the music is tellingly realised by Wigglesworth and his orchestra; this, it seems to me, is the apotheosis - if that's not a contradiction in terms - of Shostakovich's bitter, wry humour and the juxtaposition of the two symphonies on the same disc becomes ever more valuable: it's as if the Till Eulenspiegel-like composer who penned the First is now seen again after over four decades of difficult times.
In the second movement the gaunt solo cello passages, with glacial string accompaniment, make a tremendous impression: this is music pared down to the barest essentials. The sombre brass chorales that punctuate the cello passages are ominous and intense. Further into the movement the pair of flutes that join the cello at 5:39 have a ghostly pallor to their sound while the trombone at 6:39 is as baleful as you could wish. I mention these instances because it must require hours of intense rehearsal and a deep understanding of how the music should sound in order to attain this level of accomplishment in delivering it. Throughout the movement the control in playing the soft stretches of music is quite superb. At 9:28 the massive climax confronts us and because it has erupted after so much soft playing and spare textures it's all the more imposing; it's like having a sudden vision of a massive, implacable glacier. This is a magnificent, draining account of the movement.
Wigglesworth compares the start of the third movement to the carping of the Hero's Critics in Ein Heldenleben. I'd never thought of it that way but this thought is now likely to be, I suspect, one of those ideas that once planted in the brain will never be forgotten: it seems spot-on to me. Equally memorable is the conductor's description of this scherzo as 'Alice in Wonderland as told by the brothers Grimm.' The playing throughout this movement is pungent and incisive.
The Wagner quotations at the start of the finale are pregnant with tension. In the pages that follow Wigglesworth and the orchestra demonstrate the utmost concentration and focus. There's a passacaglia in this movement and I like his description of the passacaglia form as 'a dance that does not go anywhere, an unchanging bass line that imprisons the melodies above it.' That description of the bass line so typifies Shostakovich's use of the passacaglia - think of the fourth movement of the Eighth Symphony. The build-up to the movement's climax is a tense affair and then the moment itself is upon us (9:17-10:24). This was to be Shostakovich's last-ever climax in a symphonic movement and it's a mighty example, full of dread power. Thereafter in the long after-climax the movement winds down gradually, almost as if the composer is emotionally and physically spent. I don't think I've ever heard the series of weird discords from various combinations of instruments sound quite like they do in this performance (from 14:34) and then the symphony peters out with the enigmatic, quiet percussion figures: what does it all mean? I'm still far from sure but I do know that I've learned a lot more about this work and feel I understand it better as a result of reading Mark Wigglesworth's thoughts on it and, especially, from hearing him conduct it.
I said earlier that I'd abandoned comparisons in favour of listening to Wigglesworth's performance which is, quite simply, the finest rendition of this strange, enigmatic symphonic envoi that I can remember hearing. It's a very fine conclusion to Mark Wigglesworth's Shostakovich cycle. Anyone who has been collecting the cycle as it has evolved is unlikely to need any prompting from me to acquire this disc. And if you have Wigglesworth's disc of the first three symphonies, don't be put off by the duplication of the First Symphony; it's worth it to experience such perceptive, enthralling conducting of the Russian composer's first and last symphonies: an ideal coupling in every respect.
John Quinn
Previous review: Dan Morgan

Masterwork Index: Shostakovich symphony 1 ~~ Symphony 15