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Shostakovich symphonies BIS2593
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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
The Fifteen Symphonies
Soloists, Netherlands Radio Choir, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC National Orchestra of Wales /Mark Wigglesworth
rec. 1996-2010, St George's, Bristol, Brangwyn Hall, Swansea and Music Centre for Dutch Radio & Television, Hilversum
Sung Cyrillic texts & English translations included
BIS BIS-2593 SACD [10 discs: 7300:04]

Mark Wigglesworth’s Shostakovich cycle was a long time in gestation. He began with symphonies 5, 6, 7 and 10 which were set down with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (BBCNOW) between 1996 and 1999. Then, after quite a gap he resumed recordings in late 2004, completing the project by October 2006. All those later recordings were with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra (NRPO). It wasn’t until 2014 that BIS released the last instalment, the Fifteenth Symphony. I like the fact that this was a project that evolved. For this reissue the recordings made in Wales, which were originally issued as CDs, have been remastered so that the entire cycle can now be heard on SACDs. I’m not equipped for surround sound so my listening to the discs has been to the stereo layer of the SACDs.

Somewhat to my surprise, when I looked up the recordings in our Masterworks Index, I discovered that some of Wigglesworth’s performances have not previously been reviewed on MusicWeb International. At the foot of this review, I’ve included links to the appraisals by several of my colleagues, all of which I’ve deliberately avoided re-reading so that I can approach this set as freshly as possible. I must confess that when the discs were originally issued many of them passed me by; quite why, I don’t know. I’ve reviewed a couple of the most recent instalments, namely the disc containing the first three symphonies and also the Fifteenth. Given my prior ignorance of too much of this cycle, I was delighted to receive it for review.

Before I comment on the performances, I think one thing should be said very clearly. I have several complete Shostakovich symphony cycles on my shelves as well as many individual recordings. I doubt that a cycle of this composer’s symphonies has ever been issued in better sound than this BIS set.

Disc 1 contains the first three symphonies; I commented in detail on Wigglesworth’s performances back in 2012 (review) and revisiting them now hasn’t changed my views. One thing that has changed, however, is that when I first reviewed this disc, I was obliged to listen to it as a conventional CD. Now, with enhanced equipment I’ve been able to appreciate the recordings in SACD format. This enhances the punchiness of the playing by the NRPO and, in the Second and Third symphonies, the excellence of the contributions of the Netherlands Radio Choir. I’ve also significantly upgraded my headphones, so this time round I was able to hear properly the ultra-quiet opening of the Second. I must say, it was daring of Shostakovich to begin a symphony on the very edge of audibility; in fact, almost all of the opening Largo, which plays for 5:36 here, unfolds at a very soft dynamic level. Much of what follows the Largo is dissonant and harsh until a factory siren announces the choir, who take part in the final section. The Dutch singers do very well; it’s a shame about the musical material they’re given. I have to admit that I struggle to discern any structure in the Second and, if anything, that’s even more true of the Third. As Mark Wigglesworth himself says of the latter: “we are hurled helter-skelter into a series of episodes that seem to collide against each other with little purpose, sometimes breathlessly agitated, other times disconcertingly empty.” Wigglesworth’s account of the First Symphony is very fine and it’s hard to imagine the other two being better performed or recorded, though even now I still struggle to appreciate either the Second or Third.

Perhaps I need to try even harder with those works – though, honestly, I have tried. I say that because I recall buying the LP of Kirill Kondrashin’s Melodiya recording of the Fourth Symphony many years ago, when I was first getting to grips with Shostakovich’s music. Initially, the symphony was a closed book to me: how could this harsh, dissonant, hard-to-follow music be the work of the composer of the Fifth, Eighth and Tenth symphonies? I persevered, however and over the intervening years I’ve come to understand the Fourth much better through listening to a wide range of recordings – I’ve never attended a live performance – and I’ve come to think of it as one of Shostakovich’s greatest achievements. Here, it receives a magnificent performance. Wigglesworth makes the huge first movement hang together – no mean feat – and he held my attention throughout. It’s a gripping performance, rich in detail and superbly played by the NRPO. My admiration was heightened by the stunning realism with which the BIS engineers have reported the orchestra. The middle movement, which is dwarfed by the two movements which surround it, is sharply pointed and articulated. The massive finale opens with a Largo section which here has just the correct lugubrious tread. When the main Allegro is reached (6:39) the pace is furious and the playing marvellously disciplined. As was the case in the first movement, Wigglesworth maintains focus at all times. A special shout-out is appropriate for the terrific solo trombonist. The extended climax (from 20:06) is simply shattering, everything underpinned by the ominously pounding timpani. After this, the long, mainly hushed coda is expertly controlled. This is, quite simply, one of the finest recordings of the work - possibly the finest – that I’ve heard.

The Fifth was, along with the Seventh, the start of Wigglesworth’s Shostakovich odyssey; both were set down in Swansea in December 1996. I was struck by a comment – one of many fascinating insights – in Mark Wigglesworth’s notes. Discussing the composer’s apparent willingness to give the Soviet apparatchiks what they wanted, he quotes an old Russian proverb: ‘Pretend to be kissing someone, but spit when they are not looking’. I was slightly taken aback by Wigglesworth’s expansive treatment of the first movement. Most of the conductors whose recordings I have take 17 or 18 minutes but Wigglesworth takes 19:29. By contrast, Rudolph Barshai’s reading is exactly four minutes shorter while Kirill Kondrashin gets through in a mere 13:34. However, I found myself won over by Wigglesworth’s approach. The first movement, taken broadly, has a tragic air to it. Even the grotesque march (from 9:58) is taken at a steady pace and, arguably, is the more potent as a result. The short second movement is also pretty measured at the start, though there’s soon a fractional, and beneficial, injection of pace. You won’t be surprised to learn that Wigglesworth’s treatment of the Largo is expansive – rightly so. In his hands the music is deeply felt and also totally focussed. It’s a really searching exploration of the music and the BBCNOW’s playing is properly intense; they surpass themselves in the hushed last three or four minutes. The finale, the opening of which Wigglesworth rightly describes as “brutal”, is steady at the start and then develops a strutting momentum. In the last few minutes, the conductor keeps a tight rein on the music, although the coda is then brisker. Wigglesworth suggests that the last movement depicts “a victory against Stalin, not for him”; I think that’s a tenable view. His performance of the symphony as a whole certainly made me think anew about Shostakovich’s most popular symphony and what may lie behind it. In passing, I wondered if the Fourth and Fifth symphonies struck a particular chord with me because at the time when I was doing my intensive listening to this set the modern-day suppression of dissent in Russia and comment about the war in Ukraine is becoming even more apparent.

The Sixth is an intriguing work with its long Largo followed by two short movements which, superficially, seem much more extrovert. In the Largo Wigglesworth achieves a consistent level of intensity, in which he’s well supported by the BBCNOW. The many episodes of extraordinary stillness are well brought off. The movement is a daring conception on Shostakovich’s part – especially as the opening to a symphony - and through concentration and an excellent sense of line this performance conveys the cold, bleak atmosphere of the music. Wigglesworth refers to the other two movements as “hollow, heartless and phoney”. His description especially fits the concluding Presto, which gets a nimble, skittish performance. Earlier, the Allegro movement is full of bite and animal energy, in stark contrast to the Largo that has preceded it. I think Wigglesworth’s account of the Sixth is very convincing.

That’s true also of his recording of the ‘Leningrad’. The huge first movement opens in muscular fashion, grabbing the listener’s attention. The (in)famous long approach of the invading army is expertly controlled and the splendid BIS sound allows the gradual build-up to register extremely well, culminating (at 18:45) in a monumental extended climax. The second movement is a success; the faster episode (from 5:20) is intentionally strident, the tone set by the wailing E-flat clarinet. In the Adagio, Wigglesworth brings out the tragedy in the music, though not in a heart-on-sleeve fashion. In the Moderato section (from 8:07) there’s fine attack and much momentum is generated. The performance achieves grip and drama in the extended finale. Wigglesworth handles the slower episode very well, treating it as the solemn elegy it is. The long build-up to the ending is full of suspense – terrific control is exerted from the podium – and the very ending is a display of grandeur achieved through adversity. This is a very impressive traversal of the ‘Leningrad’.

The Eighth is one of the composer’s most profound utterances. Wigglesworth’s way with the opening Adagio makes a deep impression. This is yet another example of his patient, considered style paying dividends. He obtains very intense playing from the NRPO and the huge quadruple climax (18:53) is shattering. After this, the cor anglais recitative sounds, as it should, like a lament over a wasteland. In the strident, strutting second movement the acidic woodwinds particularly catch the attention. In Wigglesworth’s words, the third movement “goes the whole hog in expressing the total crushing of an individual”. Here, Shostakovich’s music is the stuff of nightmares and it’s superbly articulated in this performance. I also admire the swaggering trumpet galop. In the closing pages of the third movement the music takes us to the edge of the abyss: the piledriver climax with which the Largo begins hurls us over the edge; here, the amazingly realistic BIS recording rams the climax home. The sorrow and hushed tension of the Largo is ideally conveyed, thanks to super-sensitive playing. The concluding Allegretto suggests a lightening of the mood but, as ever with Shostakovich, one can never be sure. Mark Wigglesworth really has the measure of this forbidding masterpiece: this is an outstanding Eighth.

In his notes, the conductor discusses the perplexed contemporary reaction to the Ninth and relates the comment of an American critic that Shostakovich ‘should not have expressed his feelings about the defeat of Nazism in such a childish manner’. Wigglesworth points out Shostakovich’s dilemma in the political climate of the times and insightfully compares the Ninth with the allegorical representation in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. He does the symphony very well. In the fast movements the playing has bite and precision while the melancholy of the second movement is acutely brought out. Reviewing the recording by Andris Nelsons a while ago, I likened the portentous passages for the heavy brass in the Largo to the admonitions of a stern judge while the plaintiff (represented by the solo bassoon) tries to make his case. That comparison came to mind here also. The NRPO’s bassoonist is excellent and, it would seem, wins his case because at the start of the finale the plaintiff insouciantly strolls out into the light of day. However, despite that jaunty opening, the following music suggests there may be more to things than mere surface jollity; Wigglesworth’s slightly steady pace reinforces that suspicion.

The opening movement of the Tenth is longer, certainly in this reading, than the entire Ninth Symphony. Wigglesworth exerts focus and patience in his handling of this vast, brooding structure and the BBCNOW support him loyally. Once again, the conductor demonstrates that he knows just how to pace a Shostakovich movement and to build tension. It’s often said that the second movement is a portrait of Stalin. Wigglesworth, however, suggests that the movement is, rather, a portrayal “of the anger that he engendered”. That seems plausible to me. The present performance is weighty and bitter. The slow movement is dominated by Shostakovich’s signature DSCH motif and also by a second motif, first announced by the horn: E-A-E-D-A. In recent years it has been suggested that this latter motif may represent in musical notation the first name of Elmira Nazirova. She was one of Shostakovich’s composition pupils at Moscow Conservatoire and it seems that he had formed an emotional attraction to her. Mark Wigglesworth doesn’t mention that theory in his notes; instead, he points out a similarity to the horn call heard at the opening of Das Lied von der Erde. It's an interesting opinion. Whatever view one takes of the musical motifs, the movement is a notable one and Wigglesworth does it very well. He likens the slow opening of the finale to a “Siberian landscape”; perhaps it’s that imagery which made me feel that the music sounds ineffably sad here. The main Allegro section is busy but not celebratory; that’s in line with the conductor’s view of what lies behind the music. There are many very fine versions of the Tenth on the market. In this contested field, the Wigglesworth performance, if released as a single disc, might not be viewed as a first choice, but in the context of his compete cycle it’s an estimable element.

On the other hand, I’m strongly tempted to say that his account of the Eleventh has claims to be the finest in the catalogue. This is, unashamedly, a programme symphony. As such, it has long been under appreciated, I think. I admit that I was slow to recognise its merits but I’ve come to regard it much more highly than I used to do. Perhaps my appreciation of it has been heightened by learning that the composer’s father was among the crowd on which the Tsarist soldiers fired with such devastating consequences outside the Winter Palace in 1905. In this performance, the long first movement is pregnant with apprehensive atmosphere. Wigglesworth exhibits impressive control over the music and the NRPO play it with marvellous finesse and attention to detail. There’s an eruption of activity at the start of the second movement; here the playing is very powerful, portraying a disturbing scene of confusion. At 11:22 the soldiers crack under the pressure and from here on both music and performance are graphic with everything given an even higher profile by the superb BIS recording. The actual assault on the crowd (14:09 – 15:39) is savage; hereabouts the engineers report the explosive percussion with stunning realism. Equally impressive is the horror-struck hush as the sound of the volleys dies away. The NRPO violas intone the long melody at the start of ‘In Memoriam’ with doleful dignity. The whole of this movement exhibits sadness and respect for the fallen; that’s eloquently brought out in this performance. In the finale we hear the People’s defiance but there are also passages of reflection. Wigglesworth does this movement excellently, knitting it all together in a cohesive whole. There’s a strong narrative thread running through his performance which, benefitting from exemplary playing and superb sound, is the finest recording of this symphony that has come my way.

The Twelfth is among the weaker brethren of Shostakovich’s symphonic canon. That said, in recent years I’ve found more in it than I did at first. Like the Eleventh, it’s a symphony with a narrative – or illustrative – thread running through it and, like its predecessor, its four movements play without a break. Wigglesworth brings great urgency to the first movement, ‘Revolutionary Petrograd’. This may not be among the composer’s most profound music but in the right hands it can make an impact: here, it’s in very good hands indeed. It’s worth making the point that Shostakovich, as a boy, was witness to the events here portrayed. ‘Razliv’ is where Lenin stayed in the lead-up to the 1917 Revolution. The music is suitably brooding and restless; it is surprisingly devoid of climaxes. It’s said by some that the shells which the battleship Aurora fired on the Winter Palace, precipitating the revolutionary uprising, were blanks: Wigglesworth and the NRPO don’t fire blanks; theirs is an explosive performance of the short third movement. Again, the percussion is recorded with striking realism. The finale, ‘The Dawn of Humanity’ is musically the weakest part of the symphony but Wigglesworth makes a strong case for it, even if the very end is impossibly grandiose.

If the Twelfth has its weaknesses, that’s not a charge that can be laid against the Thirteenth. Its first movement in particular, a setting of Yevtushenko’s poem, ‘Babi Yar’ is one of Shostakovich’s great achievements. There’s much to admire about this performance. Once again Mark Wigglesworth is right on top of the score and he’s supported by terrific playing from the NRPO, who are superbly recorded by BIS. Add in the splendid contribution of the male voices of the Netherlands Radio Choir (trained for this assignment by Simon Halsey) and the recording has a lot going for it. However, I’m somewhat thoughtful about the singing of Jan-Henrik Rootering. I should say straightaway that much of what he does is very good indeed and he’s always thoroughly musical. I just worry, though, that he doesn’t have quite the black-toned vocal amplitude and heft that the role requires. Such singers as Artur Eizen and Vitaly Gromadsky, both of whom recorded the work with Kondrashin, have that Slavic timbre that the music needs and which Rootering just doesn’t quite have. On the other hand, he is bitingly incisive – as are the choir and orchestra – in the second movement, ‘Humour’. He’s even more impressive in ‘In the Store’, where his superb quiet singing fits with the stark, numb resignation of the music. There’s a huge amount to admire in this performance of the Thirteenth but I wonder if it might have been tipped over from the ‘good’ category into ‘great’ had a different choice of bass soloist been made.

One wonders for example, what John Tomlinson might have brought to the piece. The question is prompted by his participation in the Fourteenth symphony. It was interesting that Mark Wigglesworth chose two British soloists for this assignment, but both Joan Rogers and Tomlinson have strong pedigrees in Russian music. I think both artists do well here. I’ve always found this a challenging, not to say intimidating score; it contains some of the composer’s bleakest, most uncompromising music. I don’t find I can listen to it often but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognise or appreciate its great qualities. Right at the start in ‘De Profundis’ we hear Tomlinson’s dark, cavernous voice: it’s this sound that made me think of his potential suitability for the Thirteenth. He offers anguished singing in ‘In the Santé Prison’, where he’s a wrenching, despairing vocal presence. Tomlinson’s account of ‘O Delvig, Delvig!’ is deeply felt. Rogers throws herself into the impassioned music of ‘Malagueña’ and I greatly admire her expressive performance of ‘The Suicide’. Wigglesworth’s direction of the symphony is excellent.

I discussed the Fifteenth in detail in my original review. This is a score in which there’s no place to hide for the members of the orchestra. Happily, the NRPO have no need for a refuge; their playing is consistently excellent. The playing is incisive in a very spirited rendition of the first movement. Fine tension is generated in the second movement which benefits from an outstanding solo cellist. Mention should also be made of an equally accomplished trombonist later on in the movement. The biting, mordant Allegretto is really well done. The last movement is very successful indeed. Here, and elsewhere in the symphony, it’s a great achievement on the composer’s part to weave into this autobiographical symphony so many musical references, including self-quotations, without letting the music seem like a patchwork. In my original review, back in 2014, I concluded that Wigglesworth’s performance of the Fifteenth was “quite simply, the finest rendition of this strange, enigmatic symphonic envoi that I can remember hearing”. Nothing that I’ve heard in the intervening eight years has caused me to revise that opinion.

Looking back over the notes that I’ve made while listening to these performances I’m struck by the number of times words like ‘patient’, ‘controlled’ and ‘focus’ crop up. In the consistency and concentration of his conducting Mark Wigglesworth puts me very much in mind of Bernard Haitink, another conductor whose Shostakovich (and much else) I very much admire. I don’t believe there’s a weak link in Wigglesworth’s cycle and some performances – the Fourth, Seventh, Eighth. Eleventh and Fifteenth - are outstanding. I have several single-conductor cycles in my collection – by Barshai, Haitink, Kondrashin, Nelsons (not quite complete at the time of writing) and Vasily Petrenko – all of which I admire in different ways. I’ve found this Wigglesworth cycle both consistent and impressive and have no hesitation in saying it would now be my first choice for a single cycle.

BIS’s presentation is as high-quality as the performances. The booklet contains notes on each of the symphonies by Wigglesworth himself. These are excellent, full of insights and show how carefully he has considered the scores and the historical background against which each was written.  These are new notes: he wrote even more extensively about the symphonies when the individual discs were first released. Those original notes remain freely available on the eClassical site. I have just one tiny cavil about the booklet. I wish the Russian texts had been provided in a transliterated form; it’s very hard to follow the texts if you don’t know Russian.

The final word has to be about the recorded sound. As you may have gathered from the comments I’ve made during this review, the recordings are superb. For consistency I listened to these SACDs using my Beyerdynamic headphones. One has to be wary of the ear-splitting climaxes, but the dynamic range, definition, detail and ‘big picture’ perspective that was revealed were truthful and consistently outstanding. I did sufficient sampling through loudspeakers to satisfy myself that the results were equally impressive through that medium. Chapeau to the BIS engineering teams and to producers Mike George (the BBCNOW recordings) and Robert Suff.

Mark Wigglesworth, his two orchestras and the BIS engineers present this great canon of twentieth-century symphonies to best advantage.

John Quinn

Previous reviews Dan Morgan

Earlier reviews of individual releases on MusicWeb International
Symphonies 1 – 3
Symphony 4
Symphony 8
Symphonies 9 & 12
Symphony 11
Symphony 13
Symphony 15

Disc 1 [81:13]
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) [27:51]
Netherlands Radio Choir
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
rec. 2006 (No 1) & 2010 (Nos 2 & 3), Music Centre for Dutch Radio & Television, Hilversum, the Netherlands

Disc 2 [66:44]
Symphony No 4 in C minor, Op 43 (1935-1936)
rec. 2005, Music Centre for Dutch Radio & Television

Disc 3 [83:10]
Symphony No 5 in D minor, Op 47 (1937) [51:45]
Symphony No 6 in B minor, Op 54 (1939) [30:29]
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
rec. 1996 (No 5) and 1997 (No 6), Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, Wales

Disc 4 [79:20]
Symphony No 7 in C major, Op 60, ‘Leningrad’ (1941)
rec. 1996, Brangwyn Hall

Disc 5 [69:54]
Symphony No 8 in C minor, Op 65 (1943)
rec. 2004, Music Centre for Dutch Radio & Television

Disc 6 [82:10]
Symphony No 9 in E-flat major, Op 70 (1945) [24:44]
Symphony No 14, Op 135 (1969) [56:34]
Joan Rodgers (soprano)
Sir John Tomlinson (bass)
NRPO (No 9), BBC NOW (No. 14)
rec. 2004, Music Centre for Dutch Radio & Television (No 9) and 1999, St George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol, England (No 14)

Disc 7 [56:44]
Symphony No 10 in E minor, Op 93 (1953)
rec. 1997, Brangwyn Hall

Disc 8 [63:41]
Symphony No 11, Op 103, ‘The Year 1905’ (1957)
rec, 2006, Music Centre for Dutch Radio & Television

Disc 9 [84:46]
Symphony No 12 in D minor, Op 112, ‘The Year 1917’ (1961) [37:38]
Symphony No 15 in A major, Op 141 (1971) [46:16]
rec. 2005 (No 12) and 2006 (No 15), Music Centre for Dutch Radio & Television

Disc 10 [62:22]
Symphony No 13 in B-flat minor, Op 113, ‘Babi Yar’ (1962)
Jan-Hendrik Rootering (bass)
Netherlands Radio Choir
rec. 2005, Music Centre for Dutch Radio & Television

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