Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Music Webmaster
Len Mullenger:

SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47; Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.54; Symphony No.10 in E minor, Op.93.   BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth. BIS-CD-973/974 [two discs, 140’01"]
Save around 22% with




Some readers, especially those outside the UK, may be sceptical as to whether these recordings by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales can realistically be competitive, given that the world’s most famous orchestras have already recorded this repertoire. It should therefore be stated immediately that the combination of this excellent ensemble, a conductor with many individual insights to offer and fine engineering produces results here which will impress even seasoned disc collectors. These formidable new recordings from BIS are not overshadowed by competition from the world’s most glamorous orchestras: on the contrary, in the Fifth Symphony, most of the competition is trounced.

With a timing of 19’29", Wigglesworth’s performance of the opening movement of the Fifth Symphony is even longer than that of Maxim Shostakovich in his 1990 recording with the London Symphony Orchestra. Rewarding though that earlier performance is, the conductor relies on the slow tempo alone to convey a sense of gravity, whereas Wigglesworth takes more care to shape the music, and at this speed there is certainly plenty of time to characterise all the details: note the dramatic emphasis in the bars leading to the violins’ first tremolo at 1’32" (is the composer giving us a premonition here of the most inward-looking moment of the symphony, the violins’ long-sustained pp tremolo on the same high C in the third movement from 5’53" to 7’26"?) There are some passages of such hushed playing (such as at 9’12") that the effect is of numbness, the tone starved to the bone; one is reminded of how many details in this movement foreshadow precisely-analogous passages in the first movement of the Eighth Symphony. Wigglesworth’s vision is so disturbing that when the menacing middle section erupts at 9’58", initially it comes almost as a relief to the listener after so much slow, quiet intensity. After the climax, the return at 17’36" of the dotted figuration from bar 5 of the symphony is harrowing. The hallucinatory atmosphere is heightened at 18’34" by an extraordinary glissando in the strings, indicated by the composer, which conductors try usually to tone down. The symphony is split over the two CDs and one has to change discs after the opening movement, but this is not a problem: you are likely to be so moved by this performance of the first movement that you will want a considerable break before continuing with the second.

The rest of the performance is on the same high level: the scherzo is positively facetious here and there are many instances of great sensitivity in the Largo. This account of the finale confronts us with total emptiness at 7’26"; Rostropovich’s 1982 DG recording (by no means superseded by his 1994 Teldec remake) turned upside down our established ideas as to how performances of the symphony might continue from this point and Wigglesworth’s compelling solution is to crawl out of the void, bursting into a faster tempo (crotchet = 160) for the final 35 bars, brutally forceful at the end with no rit at all.

The performance of the Sixth Symphony, although fine, is less innovative than that of the Fifth. For me, the 1979 EMI version by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Paavo Berglund (not available at the time of writing) remains the most shattering account ever recorded and it is unfortunate that the 1965 Melodiya ‘live’ performance by Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic which EMI issued on LP in 1972 is not available on CD (the Melodiya version of No.6 by the same artists on BMG 74321 251982, also recorded ‘live’ in 1965 with even worse coughing and inferior sound quality, is not the same performance, and neither is the 1976 recording of the Tenth Symphony with which it is coupled the same performance of No.10 as the version, also from 1976, which was issued on Erato 2292-45753-2). Mravinsky is surpassed by Wigglesworth in the bleak opening movement, where he creates a chill with his pianissimi and subtle orchestral balances. I prefer the other two movements to be more strongly differentiated in character than is the case here: nobody seems yet to have observed that the withdrawn conclusion of the middle movement, with its ascending chromatic scale on woodwind over an A/D figuration on timpani, is a dark parody of the end of the opening movement of the Fifth Symphony, where the A/D figuration is also on timpani, but the scale is played by the celeste; such expressive implications in the middle movement of the Sixth Symphony are very different from the circus riot with which the finale concludes. Perhaps Wigglesworth does not wish to contrast the two fast movements, preferring that the finale should follow the middle movement without much increase in wildness, so that the two movements match each other in uniform hollowness: this is suggested by the hemiola he introduces at bar 240 in the finale (2’52"), a clear allusion to bars 144/5 & 152/3 (1’37" & 1’43") in the middle movement. The sarcasm of triumphant triviality which should assault the listener at the end of the work has never been more blatantly proclaimed than in Berglund’s recording; the new BIS version does not match it, but nevertheless it is a front-runner amongst the recordings currently available.

Wigglesworth’s perceptive booklet notes relate the opening movement of the Tenth Symphony to "the exhaustion of all who lived through the twenty-five years of Stalin’s tyranny" and his performance conveys well the atmosphere of grey clouds and hermit-like introversion which hangs over this movement. In this conductor’s hands, the music grows gradually from the dark underground world of the work’s opening, as though depicting the first tentative signs of calm spiritual rebirth after years of having to hide emotions under irony; minor liberties with the text, such as ignoring the tempo change indicated at bar 62 (2’29") and adding a pause to emphasise a soft string entry at bar 717 (22’57") are justifiable: in the context of this deeply-felt vision of the movement, they are no more than intelligently-made adjustments.

Because of the return to pensive underground hibernation which this performance suggests at the end of the first movement, the second makes an even stronger impact than usual, slightly marred by out-of-tune violins at 2’12" (a semitone flat) and an absent side drum at 2’25"; my only other quibble is that, as in Wigglesworth’s recording of the Seventh Symphony, I find the occasional unmarked string portamenti, both here and in other movements, of dubious value. In the third movement, Wigglesworth takes on board recent discoveries about the solo horn theme’s programmatic origin, discussed in his booklet notes. One detects the resultant influence on his interpretation with the extreme pianissimo at bar 168 (4’10"). Unmarked it may be, but most other performances sound pedantic at this point when one has grown accustomed to the BIS version. The performance of the finale breaks no such new ground, but it is convincing nevertheless, and the views of the conductor as expressed in his booklet notes, concerning the ‘meaning’ of this movement, may leave you pondering afresh how it relates to the preceding three.

Despite displaying such individuality, these performances never suggest any superficial, self-conscious straining after novel effects: after repeated hearings, I have found that the readings grow in stature, especially the stunning account of the Fifth Symphony, one of the most original I have heard. There is no routine playing, every phrase is carefully judged and there is evidence of long, hard thinking by the conductor. We need more music-making like this these days.



Raymond Clarke


(Nos.6 & 10)



Reviews from previous months

Reviews carry sales links
but you can also purchase

Return to Index