Notes and Editorial Reviews
Gripping performances, reported in superb sound.
Mark Wigglesworth’s Shostakovich symphony cycle has been quite a long time in the making – over ten years, in fact – but it’s now nearly complete. I believe the Fifteenth is still to be recorded but this issue should be the penultimate release. We’ve reviewed most of the previous releases – the Fourteenth, one of the earlier releases (BIS-CD-1173) does not seem to have come our way – and each has attracted generally favourable comments. A full set of links to earlier reviews appears at the foot of this review. So far I’ve only heard a couple of the issues in this series, Symphonies Four and Eight.
Over the years when my colleague Dan
Morgan and I have listened to the same recordings – including those which he’s reviewed but I haven’t – I found that generally our views have coincided quite a lot. Recently, however, unbeknownst to each other, we wrote simultaneous reviews of Vasily Petrenko’s disc of Shostakovich’s Second and Fifteenth symphonies and found ourselves taking quite different stances. I know that Dan has written admiringly of this latest Wigglesworth issue in its download format so I was intrigued to receive the CD version, though I’ve taken care not to read Dan’s review while preparing my own appraisal. The divergence of opinion over the aforementioned Petrenko release led to some interesting comments on the Message Board so it seemed to me that the arrival of this Wigglesworth CD would be a good opportunity to revisit Petrenko’s accounts of all three symphonies.
One problem for me in approaching this disc is that I’ve never thought very highly of either the Second or Third symphonies and that was reflected in my comments on Petrenko’s recording of the Third and, subsequently, of the Second. Would Mark Wigglesworth make me change my mind? To some extent he has made me more favourably disposed towards the Third though I’m afraid the Second still remains a closed book to me.
Irrespective of any issues about interpretation, I think there are two reasons why Wigglesworth is to be preferred over Petrenko in the Second and Third symphonies. One is that, as we shall see, though the sound on the Naxos discs is pretty good the BIS sound is even better. The other is that Wigglesworth has a clear advantage in using the professional voices of the Netherlands Radio Choir. Petrenko’s Liverpool choir, an amateur body, makes a good showing but the Dutch choir has more punch and their sound is better focused – I’m sure it helps that the choir is smaller than the Liverpool chorus. Naxos does enjoy one advantage, however, which may seem small but which, actually, is quite important: the sung texts are printed in transliterated form whereas BIS offer only the Cyrillic text and an English translation and as most collectors won’t read or speak Russian it’s easier to follow in the Naxos booklet what’s being sung.
The BIS booklet notes are by Mark Wigglesworth himself and he writes insightfully about the music. I was struck by a comment he makes about the First Symphony and the influence of Petrushka and, indirectly, perhaps of Pierrot Lunaire that “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.” In the second movement Wigglesworth’s tempo for the fast music seems very fleet but, in fact, when I compared Petrenko there’s not much to choose between them. In the third movement, however, there is quite a difference: Wigglesworth’s basic pulse is fleeter than Petrenko’s – he takes about a minute less to play the movement – but I don’t think he loses anything thereby in terms of intensity or power; quite the reverse, in fact. This may well be an instance where less means more. In passing, it’s interesting to note that in his much-admired complete cycle Rudolf Barshai is quicker than either of these younger conductors, taking just 7:43. Wigglesworth is excellent in the transition from the third movement to the fourth, bringing out the dark power in the music to perfection. The playing of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra is razor sharp throughout the whole performance and the recording – to which I listened in conventional CD format – is stunning in its immediacy; as an example, listen to the pivotal timpani solo in the finale (track 4, 6:00). I still think the Petrenko performance is a very good one but I think Wigglesworth is even better, digging deeper.
The dynamic range of the BIS recording is such that if one plays the Second Symphony at a level that will be comfortable in the strident passages then the opening is all but inaudible, even when listening through headphones. In fact it’s only after some two minutes have passed that one can really discern what’s happening. That’s not intended as a criticism of BIS, by the way; that’s surely what Shostakovich intended and all credit to Wigglesworth and his orchestra for playing so softly. The RLPO’s playing for Petrenko, while extremely quiet, is not so hushed. BIS splits the symphony into four tracks – on Naxos there are three. Wigglesworth, having started so softly, maintains the mysterious atmosphere very successfully throughout the first section. I start to “lose the plot” with this work when we get to the Meno mosso section (track 7); much of this passage sounds simply chaotic and I can’t shake off the feeling that it’s all sound and fury signifying – well, what does it signify? Wigglesworth scores over Petrenko in having what sounds like a proper siren at the opening of the choral section – and during it; Petrenko uses the option to have the sound played by unison brass instruments. As mentioned above, the Dutch choir has more punch and body to their singing than their Liverpool rivals, valiant though the Merseysiders are.
In his note on the Third Symphony Mark Wigglesworth makes some interesting and important points. He observes that, though the symphony also concludes with a choral setting of a suitably revolutionary text it was not, unlike the Second, an official commission. In other words, the decision to write this work was Shostakovich’s and he himself selected the text that he set at the end. What does this tell us? Well Wigglesworth notes that by now Stalin was in power and, indeed, one of the composer’s own friends – the dedicatee of the First Symphony – had been liquidated. So perhaps Shostakovich was showing himself to be “on message”. However, the poem that he set in the Third Symphony is one that celebrates the revolutionary struggle of the workers rather than revolution and a leader such as Lenin – let alone Stalin – so perhaps, suggests Wigglesworth, Shostakovich is lauding the concept of proletarian revolution rather than the way it had been implemented – and perverted.
Wigglesworth’s recording is divided into seven tracks. He does the opening of this continuous, one-movement work (track 9) very well and after the surface innocence of that section there’s tremendous drive and purpose to the music that follows (tracks 10-11). Here the playing of the Dutch orchestra is very vital. The orchestra also excels in the glacial string episode (track 12) that foreshadows, I think, parts of the Fourth Symphony. Later on the climactic unisons over drum rolls towards the end of track 13 sound very impressive – the BIS recording reports the bass drum thwacks marvellously, so too the baleful tuba solo at the start of track 14. Once again Wigglesworth’s choir makes a splendid showing; I don’t care at all for the music they sing but they deliver the surface excitement with great fervour. This is the most convincing performance of the Third that I’ve heard; even so, I remain sceptical, though slightly less so than before. I note with some interest that Wigglesworth’s overall timing for the symphony is significantly shorter than Petrenko’s; he takes 27:51 against 31:10.
These are gripping performances, reported in superb sound and if you want Shostakovich’s first three symphonies in a package you shouldn’t hesitate. Perhaps it helps that Mark Wigglesworth has recorded these early works almost at the end of his slowly assembled cycle; is he able thereby to refract these scores through his experience of the later works? That must be the case. One question remains: would I have rated Vasily Petrenko’s performances differently had I heard Wigglesworth first? I think the honest answer to that is no. I still think Petrenko’s versions are very good. However, Wigglesworth’s interpretations are presented in superb sound and on balance I think he has the edge interpretatively and in terms of the quality of the singing and playing that he inspires.
-- John Quinn, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 1 in F minor, Op. 10 by Dmitri Shostakovich
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1924-1925; USSR
Be the first to review this title