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Mark Wigglesworth

Shostakovich Symphony Nos. 5, 6 & 10

Shostakovich Symphony Nos. 5, 6 & 10

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales

“These two discs are simply fantastic. Shostakovich isn’t the sort of composer who requires that an orchestra demonstrate the ultimate in tonal refinement; a little rawness and edge actually make the music come alive. But he does demand 100 percent commitment from everyone concerned, and that’s exactly what Wigglesworth and his orchestra offer: intensity, urgency, and a willingness to push themselves to their limits. What’s more, BIS has provided excellent sonics – far richer than on the previous release—and a huge dynamic range…This two-disc set offers both excellent value and performances that clearly belong with the very best.”
David Hurwitz, Classics Today, November 2006

“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, Music-Web International, November 2006

“This is the second installment in Wigglesworth’s Shostakovich cycle with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the first having been devoted to a powerful reading of the ‘Leningrad’ Symphony. One of the most striking features of Wigglesworth’s Shostakovich is the impeccable attention to detail. Inner voices are carefully delineated, and the composer’s phrasing and dynamics are faithfully followed. the conductor allows the energy of the music to accumulate on its own. Climaxes are never forced, and yet the dramatic element of the music is well served. This approach is particularly effective in the Ten Symphony. The first movement is played quite slowly but the music never drags, and, most unusually, in the finale Wigglesworth avoids overemphasising the extraordinary contrast between the Haydnesque lightness of the main theme and the monolithic DSCH motto, making the movement flow in a singularly natural manner. The reading of the sixth symphony, certainly one of the composers finest works, is very nicely paced. The magnificent opening movement, with its neo-Baroque pronouncements and its long, ruminative sections, is held together splendidly, and the final pages of the last movement are played with great exuberance without the slightest trace of strain. In short, this is a very fine performance.”
Richard Burke, Fanfare, November 2006

“The first reaction I had to this release was negative: why programme this second entry in Wigglesworth’s Shostakovich intégrale such that a symphony (the Fifth) needs to be split over two CDs? That quibble is squelched by the privilege of having the booklet notes penned by the conductor, as he’d done so capably for Symphony No. 7 (reviewed in DSCH No. 10). Wigglesworth has clearly read the relevant literature, and although DSCH readers will be familiar with the politico-historical details he sets forth, it is a rare and valuable thing indeed to be able to read how those details affect the conductor’s conception of what the music is all about and how it should be performed.

Of the three Sixths under consideration in this issue, I’d put my money on Wigglesworth’s, being less impressed than was CH Loh with the accounts from Maxim Shostakovich and Yuri Temirkanov. To my ears, Maxim’s Largo sounds ponderous; Temirkanov’s, complacent. At 17:30, Wigglesworth’s first movement falls midway between theirs in tempo, allowing him to fix the listener’s attention while still demonstrating what he means when he writes, “It is so static in places, you wonder whether it is alive at all.”

Still, I must confess that, for me, the Sixth Symphony belongs to Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic, whose February 1965 recording was imprinted on my childhood brain by my father’s repeated playing of the HMV Melodiya LP release (ASD 2805). Sadly, that recording is unavailable on CD, although a 1972 remake from the same partnership is almost as fine (BMG Melodiya 74321 25198 2; coupled with a superb performance of the Tenth Symphony, from 1976). Mravinsky created the sensation of cold, alienated despair without matters grinding to a halt. Where Mravinsky’s Largo is epic, Wigglesworth’s feels like a documentary, and I find that Wigglesworth’s deliberate enunciation of each note in the main melodic line, at the expense of legato playing, brings the movement close to stalling.

As with other teams’ readings of the Sixth, this Welsh orchestra lack the starving howl of Mravinsky’s strings, which sounded as if the very marrow had been sucked from their bones. Nevertheless, Wigglesworth’s strings do have a distinctive and difficult-to-describe sound (is it premature to be speaking of “the Wigglesworth sound”?): metallic without being raspy, shimmering without being pretty, hollow without being weak. However one describes it, the sound is well suited to Wigglesworth’s conception of a dark and barren emotional landscape.

Another, less felicitous aspect of the Wigglesworth sound is the insertion of string portamenti that are not indicated in the score at various points in the Largo. These note slides sound weepy and melodramatic, out of character with the seriousness of the rest of the proceedings. Their purpose is unclear, but Wigglesworth seems attached to them, as they were liberally deployed throughout his earlier release of the Seventh Symphony, as well as in all three symphonies here. Their use in the Sixth hearkens back to outmoded Western performing practice, as can be heard in Fritz Reiner’s mono Sixth of 1945, which is itself a deeply-felt reading in which these mannerisms seem less out-of-place.

Wigglesworth successfully negotiates the grotesqueries of the two fast movements by highlighting them, fulfilling his mandate that, “The upbeat nature of the two scherzos should sound hollow, the phoney heartlessness of large groups of people.” For me, however, success or failure in this symphony pivots on the first movement, and although I’d recommend Wigglesworth over the other two contenders considered above, I am still awaiting a truly devastating digital Sixth.

Turning now to the Tenth Symphony, we find Wigglesworth again successfully translating his programmatic intentions into music. The “tired and drained” quality that he considers to be the message of the opening movement is achieved by a grey and watery violin tone. I cannot say that I was particularly engaged here; events were indeed tired and drained, but not tiring or draining, and I found it too easy to hold the movement at arm’s length for inspection. Wigglesworth’s glacial pace (he takes 25:52, as compared with, say, Mravinsky’s 22:22 in the above-mentioned recording) helped to keep me at a distance, though I was intrigued to find that, done thusly, this movement has strong ties to the second of Symphony No. 15. I’m keen to hear what Wigglesworth will make of that opus; I do hope that he will avoid unmarked portamenti, two egregious instances of which intrude here at Figs. 45 and 46 (15:10 and 15:26), with even more littering the following discourse by unison strings.

The raw second movement fares much better under Wigglesworth’s baton, being driven hard: “The emotion is not so much a depiction of Stalin himself, but an anger that he ever existed.” That anger comes through clearly, with stunning orchestral delivery. I was also convinced by the third movement, in which the ELMIRA theme rings out like a ship’s horn in fog, that can be heard clearly but not seen or touched. To Wigglesworth, the theme represents either eternal nature or human love (or both) – powerful opponents to evil, but “unfortunately there seems to be no way of connecting with [them].”

Where Wigglesworth impresses me most in his Tenth Symphony is the Finale, a movement at least as problematical as the enigmatic third. Wigglesworth’s notes encapsulate what I have always felt to be its point, that “there is no sense of relief at the end of this work, just a triumphant assertion that, despite the continued presence of tyranny, an individual with a strong enough spirit can survive.” Even more than the way he deals with the triumphalism of the movement’s close, Wigglesworth’s handling of its opening bars is revelatory, with just enough added prominence to the string “pedals” which provide the backdrop for the wind solos so that one can detect a pulsing that makes the strings sound both implacable and hollow, somehow having nothing to do with humanity at all.

Dynamic range is more conventional for the Sixth and Fifth Symphonies. The latter continues Wigglesworth’s pattern of taking opening movements slowly and deliberately. Here, it is profoundly conversational and programmatic. After the at-times agonisingly slow approach to the core of the movement, Wigglesworth’s extreme accelerando in its climactic central section feels exactly as if someone is shoving you in the small of your back towards something horrifying, and on several auditions I have felt my chest tighten, so frightening is the impression. The conductor writes, “The central section is a grotesque march. It gathers in speed as more and more people join in and you feel that this machine’s inexorable journey towards catastrophe cannot be avoided.” To ask for more subtlety in this movement would be to miss the point of his conception utterly.

The bars that follow the first movement’s climax are like one of those nightmares in which everything happens in slow motion and one’s senses are dulled, as if underwater. The nightmarish mood is heightened by the glissando on strings at Fig. 46-1 (18:34), which I guarantee that you’ve never before heard so prominently or to such eerie effect.

The glissandi in the second movement, by contrast, are flippant, perhaps suggesting the immunity of the yurodivy. Wigglesworth devotes little text in the notes to this movement, but I hear his interpretation as the perfect analogue to Roberto Benigni’s defiantly comic antics in the midst of the anti-human insanity of a Nazi concentration camp in his recent film Life is Beautiful.

Wigglesworth’s third movement is genuinely disconsolate, and the fragility of the tremolo strings is reinforced by the acoustics’ hall-induced reverb. As one would predict, the climax is intense. An unmarked ritardando is introduced to good effect at its close, at Fig. 92 (11:55), where the conductor also inserts spaces between the three notes that close the following bar, turning them into futile screams of protest.

Tempi are also played around with in the Finale (so, unfortunately, are the portamenti). Given Wigglesworth’s thorough study of the background to this symphony, it is surprising that he chooses to accelerate after the explosion of Fig. 131, whipping off the concluding bars at a decidedly pre-Testimony speed. Yet, in this case I don’t find that this makes the ending sound more sincerely triumphant. It can be just as banal this way.

I’ve listened to these recordings well over a dozen times each, and find new items of interest on each hearing. That’s not to say that I’ve fallen for them, or that I think they light the path for future performances, but Wigglesworth has something meaningful to say in this repertoire, he succeeds in getting it across, and you’d be depriving yourself of a challenging experience if you neglected his voice. Vaughan Williams was heard to say of his own Fourth Symphony, “I don’t know if I like it, but it’s what I meant.” Well, these performances are what Wigglesworth meant. I leave it to the individual listener to decide if they are what Shostakovich meant too.”
Mark Roberts, DSCH, November 2006

“Best at concentrating on the fragility and loneliness of Shostakovich’s humanity, Wigglesworth’s second installment of the symphonies brings performances purged of bombast or rhetoric – witness the coda of the Fifth, which conductors habitually inflate into wide-screen heroics but which he, in pursuit of its subversive message of ‘victory against Stalin, not for him’, takes straight (no slowing-down is called for in the score). There are odd discomfitures – the banal rush of brass at 2:47 of the second movement, occasional lapses of ensemble at high speed (the Sixth coheres better in this respect). But his Tenth, broader overall than the composer’s expectation (50 minutes) or Previn (1982), but without the ponderousness of Maxim Shostakovich (1990), deals in stark oppositions of dynamics, articulation and timbre. Some seem too much, such as the opening and whole tracts of the third movement – so quiet as to be practically inaudible (they’re only marked piano). But when it comes to the Siberian gulags (slow sorrow), the need to be seen publicly to smile (quick bustle) and the defiant voice of the individual (the unwritten agenda of the finale), such extremes could not be more emotionally apposite.”
Artes Orga, BBC Music Magazine, November 2006