Mark Wigglesworth

CD Reviews

Khachaturian Violin Concerto


James Ehnes and The Melbourne Symphony


‘The Khachaturian, composed for David Oistrakh in 1940, is a blast, its raucous optimism totally out of step with its time. James Ehnes’s total lack of inhibition is just what the work deserves, and this full-blooded performance is glorious. Ehnes can change mood with mercurial ease, the first movement’s blustering cast aside when he reaches Khachaturian’s glorious second subject. He’s aided by a delicious oboe solo. As guilty pleasures go, this is up with the best of them. The Andante sostenuto’s Armenian folk influences are deftly handled, and there’s an irritatingly catchy last movement. Mark Wigglesworth’s Melbourne Symphony Orchestra play as if possessed. Approach this music with an open mind and you’ll be dazzled and beguiled.’
Graham Rickson, The Arts Desk, June 7th 2014

Shostakovich Symphonies Nos. 1 & 15


The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra


‘Wigglesworth’s Shostakovich cycle is the finest – and most consistently satisfying – in the catalogue.’ That was my response to the previous instalment in this series, which included the No. 1 reissued here. BIS have now covered all these symphonies, a project that began with the Leningrad in 1997. Even then – with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales – it was clear we were in for something rather special; that said, Wigglesworth’s more recent performances with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic are in another league entirely. I’ve reviewed most of the latter, and their artistic strengths are matched by recordings of considerable range and splendour.

Over the years I’ve heard many accounts of these symphonies, all of different vintage and some of doubtful provenance. The one constant is the quality of the music itself; even the Cinderella pieces – Nos. 2, 3, 7 and 12 – respond gratefully to a thoughtful approach. Indeed, Wigglesworth’s quiet, cerebral progress is part of what makes his performances such a revelation. Happily that never seems to result in a lack of tension or drama; paradoxically, such a cool, analytical method allows the music to ‘speak’ plainly, without added histrionics or blatant manipulation. That’s no bad thing in scores that, for the most part, are already so volatile.

In that sense Wigglesworth’s Shostakovich is a palate cleanser, a necessary corrective to all that’s gone before. That’s not to say the insights of Kondrashin et al are any less valuable when it comes to understanding this complex, conflicted composer; if anything they all contribute to a multi-faceted, always fascinating portrait of a truly formidable talent. That prodigious gift is evident in the First Symphony, which some detractors suggest contains less of Shostakovich than first thought. Surely there’s too much of what we hear later – the mordant wit, the distinctive sonorities and those familiar progressions – for it to be anything other than an original, focused and very personal piece.

As I reviewed this version of No. 1 when it was coupled with Nos. 2 and 3 all I will say here is that revisiting it after a longish break has increased my admiration for both the work and Wigglesworth’s performance. No. 15, the culminating work in this most valuable cycle, was recorded at the same time as the First; collectors may well be irritated by the duplication, which could have been avoided with a new recording of, say, The Execution of Stepan Razin. I’d really like to hear more Shostakovich from this team, but I have a feeling that’s all we’re going to get.

Given what we’ve already received it seems churlish to complain. We must also be grateful for the number of fine Fifteenths in the catalogue. Haitink (Decca) has long been a favourite of mine, not least for his judicious blend of wit and introspection. Kondrashin’s Melodiya account is uniquely Russian – sometimes raw, always illuminating – as is Maxim Shostakovich’s recording of the 1972 premiere (on a Melodiya LP). Of more recent versions Dmitri Kitaienko (Capriccio) offers both a forensic examination of the score and top-notch engineering. That said, the one I turn to most is Kurt Sanderling’s with the Berliner Philharmoniker; first issued on the orchestra’s own label, this performance digs deeper and goes darker than any I know. Kondrashin’s 1974 Dresden account (Profil) isn’t far behind.

So, how does Wigglesworth’s Fifteenth fare in such august company? It takes a while to warm up – the first movement seems a little po-faced at the outset – but the mood does lighten thereafter. As always there’s nothing rushed about Wigglesworth’s reading, with every tic and nuance laid bare in the most natural and unaffected way. By contrast Haitink has more point and sparkle, and Decca’s sharpened edges add to the music’s brittle humour. Wigglesworth’s insistence on more air around the notes really pays dividends in the strange, disembodied second movement; the muted brass are unanimous, the twisting cello line is as wistful as any, and it’s all so thrillingly spectral.

The Allegretto is well shaped and sprung; the playing is wonderfully alert and precise, and the music’s quirks and quiddities are never overplayed. I wouldn’t have minded a bolder, more vivid sound – one has to crank up the volume for it all to snap into focus – but then this isn’t the mighty Eighth or Eleventh. Indeed, I’ve seldom heard this finale sound so quietly refined. Some listeners may prefer the upfront presentation of, say, Haitink, but Wigglesworth’s restraint and attention to detail are just as compelling. Moreover he builds climaxes from afar, so that when they arrive they do so with devastating impact.

It’s hard to believe that these performances are sourced from 44.1kHz originals, such is their presence and timbral accuracy; just sample the drum taps and soft tam-tam strokes in the finale, for instance. More important, there’s a sense of time suspended, of an audience holding its collective breath, and that’s very rare in a studio recording. At the heart of it all is Wigglesworth’s masterly control of structure and dynamics; the end result is discreet, direct and utterly absorbing.

Well worth the wait; a fitting end to this fine cycle.

Dan Morgan, MusicWeb-International, February 18th 2014


“The first release in Mark Wigglesworth’s Shostakovich cycle for BIS (of the Seventh Symphony) appeared as long ago as 1997. This pairing of the first and last symphonies completes the project, which has been shared between the Netherlands Radio Orchestra and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. In fact, both these works were recorded eight years ago, and Wigglesworth’s performance of the First has been issued before, on a disc with the Second and Third Symphonies two years ago.
Reissuing it with the work at the very opposite end of the canon makes a good deal of sense, though. For there’s something about Wigglesworth’s approach to the First that seems determined to link it with the mainstream of Shostakovich’s symphonic writing, rather than treating it as a brittle example of his early flirtation with neoclassicism (which was followed by the modernist experimentalism of the Second and Third, and only after that by the evolution of a personal, genuinely symphonic style from the Fourth Symphony onwards). Wigglesworth shows that some of the qualities he finds in his delicate, almost balletic treatment of the first movement – and especially the weighty elements he unearths in its lento and finale – can be transferred directly across almost half a century to the 15th.

As Wigglesworth points out in his own thoughtful sleeve notes, that’s partly because Shostakovich set out in his final symphony to trace his own biographical journey in music, with a liberal use of allusions and direct quotations, not only from his own works but from a host of other composers, too – most obviously from Rossini’s William Tell in the first movement, and the fate motive from Wagner’s Ring and the opening of Tristan und Isolde in the finale. But hearing how the energy of the opening movement of the First translates into the more sardonic mechanics of the same movement in the 15th, and how the tragedy that the second movement of the 15th confronts what was already lurking in the 1920s, suggests that the real foundations of his symphonic thinking were laid right at the start of his composing career.

Now that it is complete, Wigglesworth’s cycle emerges as one of the finest of recent times, far more consistent and considered than its most obvious recent rival, from Vasily Petrenko on Naxos. The very wide dynamic range of the BIS recordings may be a problem to some listeners – turn up the volume to catch the detail of some of the extreme pianissimos and you risk being overwhelmed by the climaxes – but it’s well worth persevering.”

Andrew Clements, The Guardian; April 23rd 2014


“The playing is excellent. Wigglesworth’s clear-eyed examination of the score works particularly well at teasing out the eerie strangeness of some of the writing … The dynamic range and control of it makes the most of the climaxes … the end result is utterly absorbing and it comes coupled with Wigglesworth’s brilliant recording of Shostakovich’s first symphony … a fabulously immersive recording.”

Andrew McGregor, BBC Radio 3 Record Review Dis of the Week; May 17th 2014


‘Mark Wigglesworth has an excellent nose for this music. His cycle of the symphonies – split between Wales and the Netherlands – has thrown up some top contenders and even first choices, and this recoupling of the first and last of them conveys a satisfying sense of both the journey and its completion. Shostakovich’s beginnings in providing piano accompaniments for silent movies are much in evidence in the First Symphony. Wigglesworth’s BIS engineers have even given the piano a refreshing immediacy as the story board of the opening movement unfolds.

Everything from slapstick to melodrama is embraced and vividly chronicled in Wigglesworth’s performance. There are intimations, too, of Stravinsky’s Petrushka (that obligato piano again) and the Ballerina is much in evidence in the little flute melody that passes for a second subject. And to say that there is more than a touch of Tom and Jerry in the helter-skelter scherzo is to pretty much state the obvious. I love Wigglesworth’s characterful handling of the passage coming out of the Trio where a grumpy bassoon laboriously tries to get the movement up to speed again. The intrigue, the thematic sleight offhand, the dazzling accomplishment of this piece never fails to amaze (the composer was 18) – but this Wigglesworth performance, with cracking playing from the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, must be one of the best.

The slow movement turns the tomfoolery and melodrama on its head and glimpses the soul of a teenager who is already experiencing anger and disillusionment. Wigglesworth digs deep here and his attention to dynamics has us breathing a different kind of air at the heart of the movement. The intimations of mortality which haunt the Fifteenth and last symphony are much less than a lifetime away.

Just as Shostakovich said he felt as though he had been born again at the premiere of the First Symphony, so the opening of the Fifteenth takes us back to the nursery, to a second or even third childhood. The flippancy and childishness so well pointed by Wigglesworth (the silliness prompting that William Tell quote) is, of course, just the sort of irreverence the Soviets would have despised. Wigglesworth’s performance has a perverse logic to it and he’s so good at making a kind of sense of those passages that drift into the no-man’s-land of the composer’s imagination – like that strange meandering string fugue at the heart of the first movement.

The irony is, of course, writ large here; and, quite apart from the big rhetorical gestures that Wigglesworth’s orchestra and engineers deliver with such force, there is a quiet wryness in moments like the flippant redirection of the Tristan quotation away from the indeterminacy of Wagner’s famous chord. This piece knows exactly where it is going: towards the ticking percussion motif from his once outlawed Fourth Symphony. It’s a last laugh that is not lost on Wigglesworth.’

Edward Seckerson, The Gramophone; July 2014

‘It’s intriguing to experience Shostakovich’s first and final symphonies side by side. Superficially one might have expected there to be little tangible connection between works than span almost 50 years of a turbulent life. Yet for all its youthful exuberance, the grotesquerie in the opening movement and the scherzo of the First is surely recalled with even more sinister undertones in the equivalent movement of the later work. And although the slow movement and finale of the Fifteenth are on a much grander scale, the unexpected change of mood in the second half of the First Symphony already seems to hint at the tragic demeanour of the composer’s symphonic swansong.

These connections are brought vividly to life here. As in previous recordings in this fine Shostakovich cycle, Mark Wigglesworth provides compelling and insightful interpretations that keep you transfixed. Apart from the uniformly high quality of orchestral playing and the outstandingly brilliant SACD sound, the great strength of Wigglesworth’s interpretations lies in the keenly articulated response to every inflection, without ever sounding cerebral or lacking in emotional heft. Wigglesworth adopts expansive speeds for the outer movements of the Fifteenth, but he keeps a tight grip on the structure, building up climaxes of awesome power in the few passages where Shostakovich unleashes the full might of the orchestra. Likewise, the pacing is immaculate in the ominous funereal tread of the Adagio.’

Erik Levi, BBC Music Magazine; August 2014


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 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. 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, 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. 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, MusicWeb International, May 2014


‘This release completes Mark Wigglesworth’s generally excellent Shostakovich cycle. It’s a pity that another coupling for the Fifteenth Symphony could not have been found, since the First already has appeared alongside the Second and Third. On the other hand, no one especially cares about the Second and Third, so having Shostakovich’s first symphonic essay hitched to his last isn’t a bad idea, even if collectors acquiring this cycle one disc at a time may be annoyed. Presumably when the inevitable boxed set gets released, this will all be sorted out.
As mentioned in my review of the First Symphony, it’s a performance that gets better as it goes. The first movement, crisp and clear though it undoubtedly is, lacks that element of exaggerated humor that it ideally needs—it’s a function perhaps of less than characterful woodwind solos combined with a slightly low-level recording. The scherzo, swift and pointed, also could do with more devilry, but the Lento movement and finale remain impressive on re-hearing.
The Fifteenth Symphony features an interesting interpretation, deliberate and deadly serious even in the lighter moments, rather like Sanderling’s for those of you who know it. Its opening movement is on the slow side, but still clearly Allegretto. The big climaxes in the Adagio and the Finale are tremendous: grinding and terrifying, and powerfully sustained, while the Scherzo sounds as hollow and spooky as any on disc. As with the First Symphony, the dynamic range on this SACD is almost too wide: the soft bits are exceptionally quiet, while the climaxes risk antagonizing your neighbors. Nevertheless, the performance makes an imposing conclusion to a cycle that, quietly and without much fanfare, ranks among the best.’

David Hurwitz,; June 2014

‘This SACD disc has the Symphony No. 1 and Symphony No. 15 marking both ends of Shostakovich’s symphonic output. This disc also makes the completion of this series of discs from BIS and composer Mark Wigglesworth. It has been a long process, the first recording was the Seventh Symphony in 1997.
Shostakovich wrote the Symphony No. 1 completing it when he was 19. It was written as a graduation piece at the Petrograd Conservatory in 1925. Some of the themes reflect music the composer wrote when he was much younger, and the symphony, filled with exuberant joy as well as deep reflection is still popular today.
The performance by the Netherlands Philharmonic is excellent and played with precision. The recording is really a fine one, with very strong instrumental definition and positioning. I listened in the native 5.0 surround, and most of the sound is up front where it belongs, with a hint of hall ambience in the rear.
The Symphony No. 15, written almost 15 years later, in 1971, during a one-month burst of energy. It was first performed in Moscow in 1972.
The symphony is remembered today for many dramatic moments, including a rather eerie coda centering around a sustained pedal point with a dramatic and exciting percussion toccata featuring castanets, snare drum, wood block, xylophone, and triangle. The symphony quotes from the Shostakovich 4th and 7th Symphonies, which the composer often did, and the 15th is full of these quotes, including references to the William Tell Overture and the music of Glinka and Mahler.
Here again, Wigglesworth gets an aggressive and fine performance from the orchestra, especially the percussionists who are spotlighted in the work. The recorded sound is first rate, and while the recording itself is not new, dating from 2006. it is faultless.
BIS has what I consider to be the finest recorded series of the Shostakovich symphonies so far. Not all the editions are SACDs as this one, but the full set is as much as any aficionado of the composer could hope for in performance and recording quality. BIS should offer the cycle in a set so people don’t have to buy them separately.’

Mel Martin, Audiophile Audition; July 12th 2014


‘Mark Wigglesworth is one of the best Shostakovich conductors out there; I’d go so far as to say one of the finest conductors of our times. In contrast to so many others, he pays painstaking attention to details of phrasing. There’s no coasting in any of his recordings, no sketchiness on the way that lies between points of greater tension and apparent importance. He really captures every single twist of musical mockery in the first movement of his First; the double-time waltz has never had its colors so clearly delineated, in my experience, or to such sickeningly sweet effect. But momentum lags; and the scherzo that follows never takes off. The outer sections are far too serious, too restrained—none of the parody here of silent film chase scenes that Shostakovich, who was a theater pianist accompanying those films, meant for this section—while the central trio becomes so expressive in its pursuit of color that it expands to cover everything. Not surprisingly, the most conservative and conventionally symphonic movement in the work, its third, finds Wigglesworth entirely on the mark. He catches the cyclical aspect of the fourth movement as well, but misses the obvious efforts by the composer to derail a typically Russian celebratory finale.
Wigglesworth’s 15th again shows his mastery of phrasing detail, but it’s his ability to build a movement that comes to the fore here. It’s especially appreciated in a work that lacks a clear outline and has been accused of being episodic. Under Wigglesworth’s direction each movement has a clear frame with structural elements that integrate clearly, in such a fashion as to seem the only appropriate way as long as that movement lasts. The first is deceptively gentle, though here and later the conductor finds an ice-cold edge to the brass band chorales that dot the symphony. The concentrated power of Maxim Shostakovich/Moscow RSO (out of print) is missing, but the second movement paints a dark, bleak canvas in which the lamenting string solos are quickly smothered by the tonal clusters. The scherzo is a bit closer to the unbuttoned Wigglesworth I’ve heard in live concert, and has some of that nose-thumbing which was completely lacking from the First. The finale is once again gentle, but the unstable tonality, swift-moving accompaniments, and generally reduced dynamics create an impression of smooth waters looking down into darkness. Of course, the conductor points the return of the tonal clusters from the second movement, and gets just the right amount of frost into the toy store’s eerie reappearance as well.’
Barry Brenesal; Fanfare October 2014

Brahms The Piano Concertos

Stephen Hough/Mozarteumorchester Salzburg

‘The conductors with whom (Stephen Hough) works do not accompany. They collaborate, and do so in the fullest sense, with an open-minded approach to the score that yields interpretative fruits as fresh as those disclosed by the soloist. Interpretations built from the ground up, un-beholden to any threadbare tradition, and abundant with heretofore neglected details result. Listening to them can be thrilling, as in the case of the Tchaikovsky concertos with the Minnesota Orchestra and Osma Vanska, or revelatory, as were the Liszt concertos with Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic. This new set of Brahms concertos maintain and even extend those high standards.

Mark Wigglesworth leads the Mozarteum Orchestra of Salzburg in a trajectory that from the timpani thunderclap punctuating the pedal point surge that launches the D minor Concerto, enacts the relentless unfolding of implacable tragedy. This is undoubtedly young Brahms, but without a trace of reticence or ambivalence. Towering, angular chords have edges that could slice stone and the strings’ high-register trills shriek in recoiling alarm. When energy subsides and the piano enters, Hough is at pains to articulate gently swaying quavers with Brahms’ non-legato, legato and staccato indications, long since ignored by everyone in favour of an undifferentiated legato line. The effect is immediately striking – a disconnect – as though the protagonist inadvertently wandered onto a scene of such violence and devastation that he is unable or unwilling to comprehend what surrounds him. Thus, through the accretion of another two dozen instances of close reading, intelligent contrasts and eloquent rhetoric, do Hough, Wigglesworth and the Salzburgers construct a towering edifice, conjuring waves of power and tapping veins of poetry from the depths of this perhaps least guarded of Brahms creations. The Adagio moves quickly enough to allow for the application of exquisitely wrought rubato at appropriate junctures without risk if collapse; it concludes with a cadenza that could be the ascent of an angel. Rhythmic vitality and crystalline textures imbue this Rondo whose escape from death seems a vigorous, ritualised dance.

The seemingly vast Bb Concerto requires radically different strategies. Without sacrificing grandeur or mass, this performance is distinctly colourful and shapely – one is almost tempted to say lithe. Significant credit is due to Wigglesworth, whose close attention to balances render the orchestral choirs luminous, and whose wonderfully coaxing, elastic beat never becomes ponderous. Hough seems constitutionally incapable of the pasty-thick textures, constantly raised dampers, glacial tempos and muddy colours with which many pianists baste this piece in particular, in the name of a ‘Brahms’ sound. He demonstrates time and again how a leaner sound allows this music greater flexibility, not to mention enhanced expressiveness through subtly shaped phrasing. The scherzo whips up terrific passion, only to be startlingly disarmed by the understated lyricism of the trio. The slow movement comes as close as any I know to the time-stopping starry firmament that Artur Schnabel and Adrian Boult created in 1935. And I confess – pace Backhouse, Rubinstein, Serkin, Richter, Fleisher, Angelich et al – I never knew the Rondo could sparkle with such grace and wit. Both Marcus Pouget’s cello obligato and the uncredited horn solos are superb.

There’s nothing to argue with in either the conception or execution of these stimulating, heartfelt performances. The engineers did a tremendous job of capturing a fully dimensional, sensual sound that is rich in detail, while providing a welcome true-to-life balance between piano and orchestra. Over the past week and a half I’ve returned to them again and again, always with great pleasure and constantly hearing new, interesting details. Dyed-in-the-wool devotees of Brahms, as well as those who desperately need a new take on him, will find here much to savour and ponder.’
Patrick Rucker, International Record Review; December 2013


“Wigglesworth is pact and taut in rhythm…The impression I have here is of readings that have divested themselves of excess baggage and are lighter on their feet…I ended up delighted by and in complete admiration of Hough’s boldness. He has become a warmer player of increased range in Brahms, and unafraid to take risks.”

Gramophone Magazine; January 2014


“Clearly working in absolute rapport with Mark Wigglesworth, they achieve together a lean, at times almost wiry sound…yet there is no lack of muscular force or orchestral power in the many big moments. Hough brings an unusually wide range of keyboard colour to bear on Brahms’s piano-writing.”

BBC Music Magazine; February 2014


‘Two eyebrows might be raised at Stephen Hough’s new CD. There’s the unusual cover painting: a feverishly coloured coastal scene from the Russian expressionist Jawlensky, not the first painter to come to mind when thinking of Brahms. Your other eyebrow might shoot up over the choice of orchestra, although there’s actually no reason why the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra can’t summon the heft that Brahms’s piano concertos require; they even play Bruckner symphonies.

There’s no surprise at any rate that the pianist is Stephen Hough. Britain’s keyboard wizard has been regularly programming Brahms in recent concerts and his performances here show his usual thoughtfulness, elegance and brilliance. He’s especially striking in the mature expanse of the second concerto, often flecking solo phrases with miniature hesitations as if pausing to savour the taste of a choice biscuit. His way with the scherzo may be over-earnest even for Brahms’s grave jest, but the pay-off arrives with the fleet finale, which is entrancingly light and sparkling. As for the slow movement, Hough’s penetrating playing, so limpid and pensive, is still echoing in my head alongside Marcus Pouget’s beautiful cello solos.

The reverberations of the entire orchestra are equally slow to die. The conductor Mark Wigglesworth scrupulously prepared his musicians and their medium-weight sound offers the best of both worlds: chamber intimacy if needed, but also clear textures whenever the notes thicken. As for drama, the orchestra launches the first concerto with spectacular tension, urged forward by timpani tremors as baleful as rolling thunder. When the caressing second motif arrives, it’s time to mop the brow.

In the recording balance Hough is placed forward enough to display his mettle without ever hammering the listener. In No 1, the breadth of his playing in phrasing and pacing impresses the most and if his finale never properly caps the argument, that drawback was built into the work from the beginning. Not that anyone at this date should be wagging a finger at Brahms: both concertos are marvels of the repertory and Hough and the Mozarteum players polish their wonders anew.’
Geoff Brown, The Times; November 29th 2013

‘A select handful of concertos by Mozart and Beethoven, the first of Tchaikovsky’s and the two Brahms concertos are what we are most likely to hear during any symphony orchestra season, or at a piano competition. This is music that’s familiar and comfortable, like a pair of bedroom slippers. So familiar that it’s easy to forget that Brahms is not easy either technically or musically. Nor are these two works typical of the showy Romantic piano concerto tradition.
Hough has been performing the Brahms concertos around the world (including Toronto) for years and years, but he waited until his early 50s to set his thoughts down for a permanent record. The result is emphatically worth our attention.

The most noticeable thing about these interpretations is their freedom. Recorded at the Festival Hall in Salzburg with the orchestra of the Mozarteum and conductor Mark Wigglesworth in January, these performances are paragons of carefully modulated musical storytelling. The coordination between conductor and soloists is remarkable, resulting in subtle rubato, pauses and dynamic shifts made in perfect lock step. Hough is a master of the velvet touch, while Wigglesworth gets utter clarity and balance from his orchestra. With this sort of freedom with the music, there’s always the threat that the overall interpretation will be less than the sum of some very pretty parts, but both concertos come out as impeccably rendered wholes that also delight in the little details. Hough can come off as a bit mannered at times, articulating details in some passages that are usually performed more evenly and changing some common phrasings, but his personal touches all make sense in the context of the bigger picture.

These two concertos are very different pieces of music. The first was, in many ways, Brahms’ symphonic coming-out piece as a 20-something. He wrote his second concerto 20 years later. He had a lot to prove in the first, and a lot of skill to incorporate into the second. The first is self-consciously dramatic, the second is more quietly assured — and the musicians treat the music accordingly.

Both pieces are structured like supersized chamber works, where the piano is less about showboating than being an orchestral collaborator. Of course the pianist can show off, with crashing chords and cascading runs, but there is much tender singing in the slow movements and near-constant dialogue between the big, black beast and everyone else on stage.
In these Brahms concertos, having the soloist and orchestra on the same wavelength really does make a difference.’
John Terauds, Musical Toronto; December 13th 2013


‘The two great piano concertos by Brahms are perhaps the most symphonically conceived of the standard repertoire. Indeed, the earlier in D minor — also the key of Beethoven’s last symphony — began life as a piano solo work, which the young composer struggled to turn into a symphony before finalising its form five years after its original conception. The later B flat major work is unusual for the so-called “classicist” Brahms in that it has a four-movement structure, like a symphony, including a “scherzo”; but there is nothing joke-like about this epic, turbulent allegro appassionato (also in D minor), especially as conceived by Hough and Wigglesworth in their broad, spacious and dramatic accounts of both masterpieces. Hough brings his famed dexterity to the bravura passages, but never sounds glitzy or showy. Indeed, the most rewarding aspect of both performances is his chamber-music-like interplay with the excellent Mozarteumorchester’s soloists — the principal horn is glorious throughout, launching the B flat concerto with a clarion but warm central European glow. These familiar and oft-recorded works sound fresh minted. Brahms’s concertos have rarely sounded more brilliant, energetic and innovative.’
Hugh Canning, The Sunday Times; January 5th 2014

‘Stephen Hough has previously recorded Brahms’s piano concertos, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Andrew Davis. That was more than twenty years ago and he has not denied himself or us the music since. His January 2013 view of these expansive works is documented here, with the Mozarteumorchester Salzburg and Mark Wigglesworth. The current collaboration is a very productive one.

If the name of the Salzburg-based orchestra suggests fewer personnel than is the norm, then whatever size the ensemble is, the clarity and weight of the playing seems about ideal, and Wigglesworth’s conducting is deeply considered as well as being sympathetic to Hough. There is plenty of timpani thunder and horn blaze at the opening of the mighty D minor Piano Concerto, and woodwinds and strings are in parity; detail abounds. From Hough’s first entry the music is kept on the move without rush or glossing over possibilities. From tenderness to tempestuousness the pianist has the music’s measure. As ever with Hough, his playing is never sterile or hectoring – a myriad of touch and dynamic contrasts testifies to this – and enjoys a bygone approach to flexible phrasing and also invests a healthy disturbance when required. The piano, a Steinway, has a particularly attractive tone, warm and pellucid, never harsh yet with real depth of tone, and allows no end of expressive solos; the opening of the wonderful slow movement, a benediction, cuts one to the emotional quick. No lack of energy and cut and thrust, either, which the outer movements abound in. This is in short a virile and moving performance, sensitive and searching, that repays numerous return visits.

So too the majesty of its B flat successor with a ripe horn solo to open. Once again Hough’s love of and experience in Brahms’s music shines through in numerous personal touches that illuminate the music while also being unshakeable in terms of integrity. The space of the opening movement is well attested to, poise, drive and reflection made as one. The scherzo that is the second movement is suitably passionate, and the slow movement opens with the distinct advantage of the solo cellist being adjacent to the pianist (rather than espied by him straight ahead through the piano and its lid), a consequence of Wigglesworth using antiphonal violins and placing the cellos centre-left. It means that Marcus Pouget, in his beautifully rendered contribution, can act as a partner to the pianist, exactly what Brahms intended in this rapt and ardent outpouring. As for the finale, its relaxed playful quality is highlighted, with some elastic stretch and so beguilingly in the process.

All-round excellence here, then, naturally recorded and with a good musical balance, rich and rounded. Hyperion is offering the two CDs for the price of one.’
Colin Anderson,; December 2013



‘These are not Stephen Hough’s first recordings of the Brahms concertos: he recorded both of them for Virgin Classics with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sir Andrew Davis around 1989/1990. I haven’t heard those performances but the recording of the Second Concerto received a rather muted welcome here from Tim Perry, largely on account of what he judged to be lacklustre conducting by Davis. Jonathan Woolf was similarly disappointed. I hope if either of them gets the opportunity to hear this new account of the concerto they will feel it merits higher praise; I rather think they might. 
First we must consider the new recording of the D minor concerto. Things get off to an auspicious start: the orchestral opening is fiery, the playing muscular and strongly profiled. There’s a slightly grainy sound to the strings – I don’t say that in a negative way – and all in all Mark Wigglesworth and his players convey the impression that the music is, in annotator Jan Swafford’s words, ‘massive and dramatic’. Stephen Hough, when he joins them, is on the same wavelength. Throughout this huge, taxing movement there’s an abundance of sinewy strength in both the piano playing and the contribution of the orchestra. Yet the reflective side of the music is in no way underplayed; that’s excellently done too. All in all I felt that all the facets of Brahms’s movement are well explored here. 
 Jan Swafford, author of a fine biography of the composer, reminds us that Brahms told Clara Schumann that the second movement was ‘a tender portrait’ of her. It’s beautifully done here with the poetic side of Hough’s pianism well to the fore. He’s impressive too in the more ardent stretches of music and once again one has the distinct feeling of soloist and conductor on the same wavelength. In the rondo finale Swafford states that Brahms followed the time-honoured practice that a concerto finale should be ‘light, brilliant and vivacious rather than ponderous’. The movement is definitely not ponderous but this is an occasion when Brahms’s high spirits were on the serious side or, at least, purposeful. Hough rises completely to the virtuoso demands of the piano writing – as he has throughout the concerto – offering much dexterous playing. Once again you feel that Wigglesworth and his players are with him every step of the way. The final pages are very exciting, bringing a notable reading of this concerto to a fine conclusion.

The D minor concerto was the product of a great deal of compositional labouring by Brahms; it took him five years to complete. By contrast the B flat concerto is a work written when he was at the height of his powers. The first movement is scarcely less imposing and ambitious in terms of scale than the corresponding movement in the D minor concerto – in these performances the first movement of the D minor concerto plays for 22:53, the first movement of its companion takes 18:19. However, where so much of the earlier concerto’s opening movement was turbulent in nature here we have a much more lyrical – and, dare one say, confident – spirit. Jan Swafford very rightly points out that the nature of the piano part is constantly changing, ‘its music moving from long unaccompanied solos to lacy filigree accompanying the orchestra.’ Whatever Brahms asks of him Stephen Hough achieves in a most satisfying and accomplished fashion, his playing responsive to all the nuances of the score. There may be less turmoil in evidence here than was the case with the D minor work but the piano part is still a major test of pianistic strength and stamina. It’s also demanding on the conductor and orchestra but all involved pass Brahms’s tests with flying colours. 
 It’s perhaps significant that the scherzo is in D minor for in some ways we’re plunged back into the emotional world of the earlier concerto in this dark, surging movement. In a powerful performance Stephen Hough invests the music with great energy and no little passion. He and Wigglesworth collaborate in a tremendous performance. Wigglesworth sets quite a flowing tempo for the gorgeous third movement; his pace is a little faster than I can recall hearing on disc before and overall he and Hough take 11:52 whereas in the justly renowned Gilels/Jochum performance (DG, 1972) the movement plays for 14:02 – and never seems a second too long. But the tempo marking is ’only’ Andante, so I think the pace in this present performance is fully justified – and it works. The lovely cello solo is played very well indeed by Marcus Pouget though I think that Ottomar Borwitzky (for Jochum) had a slightly richer tone. Here we have a wonderful performance that is detailed and romantic. The exquisite transition back to the cello solo with which we began (6:11 – 8:10), always a touchstone for me, is magical. The music of the finale is light and good humoured and these performers clearly enjoy it. There’s wit and grace in Hough’s playing and the orchestra match him. This, then, is another highly successful performance, just like its companion on the other disc.

As a look at our Masterworks Index for either concerto will confirm, there is an abundance of top quality recordings of each in the catalogue. I bought the Emil Gilels set when it first came out on LP and in its CD incarnation it continues to be a cornerstone of my collection (review). Curzon and Szell take some beating in the D minor concert (review); it’s interesting that they’re significantly more expansive than Hough/Wigglesworth in the Adagio. I also greatly admire the readings of both works from two very different pianists: Solomon (Testament) and Stephen Kovacevich (EMI). Other readers will have their own personal favourites, I’m sure. 
 However, this new Hyperion set can be ranked with the very best. The pianism is of the highest order, both technically and intellectually, while Stephen Hough seems to have found an ideal collaborator in Mark Wigglesworth, who here makes his Hyperion debut. The performances have been captured in very good sound by engineer Simon Eadon and producer Andrew Keener while the booklet essay by Jan Swafford is succinct and valuable. Hyperion are offering these recordings as a two-for-the-price-of-one set, which increases the attraction. I shall continue to listen with great pleasure to all the recordings mentioned in the previous paragraph – and some others besides – but I know I’ll also be returning often to this very fine set. These performances now join the select list of reference recordings for both concertos.’
John Quinn, Musicweb-International; January 2014

Shostakovich Symphonies Nos. 1-3


The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra


“Mark Wigglesworth’s Shostakovich cycle so far…has set new standards for these works. [His] Shostakovich is deeply satisfying, shedding new light on works we think we know so well…The playing of the Dutch orchestra is full of unexpected colour and nuance, and the recording has enormous range and impact…But the real thrill is that Wigglesworth digs so much deeper than most, and sometimes it’s as if we’re hearing this music anew. It’s a defining characteristic of his other recordings in the series and augurs well for the rest…The mahogany richness of the BIS recording invests the music with a warmth and lustre I’ve not heard before. And the epiphanies don’t stop there, structures more rugged and progress more implacable than ever.

…Once again there’s an airiness to his reading (of the Second Symphony) that seems to reveal so much more of the music. I’ve rarely heard this symphonic edifice built so carefully, brick by brick, but the effect is utterly compelling. The stereo spread in the BIS recording is very convincing and individual instruments are easy to locate in the soundstage; it certainly has the finest, most throat-grabbing sound of all…the work builds to a most thrilling – and tasteful – climax. But then that’s Wigglesworth’s way; he really does know how to balance out the banalities in Shostakovich and get the mood of this music just right.

Not surprisingly, Wigglesworth’s liner-notes are a model of clarity and good sense, and he draws attention to the fact that Shostakovich intended the Third Symphony to be a token of support for workers the world over. Thinly disguised propaganda or just honest fellow feeling? I’ll leave that for others to decide. There’s just so much to engage with – and marvel at – in these performances…the artistic and sonic virtues of this new recording simply blaze forth. It’s a triumph for all concerned and proof, if it were needed, that Wigglesworth’s almost complete Shostakovich cycle is one of the finest – and most consistently satisfying – in the catalogue. Onward the 15th!”
Dan Morgan, Musicweb-International; April 2012


“Mark Wigglesworth’s take on Shostakovich’s early symphonies gives a fascinating insight into the composer’s development.

Shostakovich’s first three symphonies just squeeze on to a single CD, but as far as I know this is the first time they have been released in such a convenient package, as they make up the latest installment in Mark Wigglesworth’s cycle of the complete symphonies. From the perspective of how Shostakovich’s career was to develop, all three offer a fascinating array of might-have-beens, hinting at stylistic directions that were contemplated, but never followed up. Wigglesworth’s performance of the First Symphony particularly, though, seems intent on demonstrating how much that work does actually foreshadow what followed from the Fifth Symphony onwards. There’s little of the quick-witted brittleness that one usually associates with the score; everything is much more deliberate and, in the slow movement and finale especially, almost self-consciously “symphonic”. With their much looser grip on tonality and constructivist approach to form, it’s much harder to disguise the modernist inclinations of the Second and Third, but Wigglesworth and the Netherlands Radio Orchestra do a fine job in clarifying the tangled textures, and in making their choral finales seem a bit more than just propagandist doggerel.”
Andrew Clements, The Guardian; June 21st 2012


“Shostakovich’s quirky First Symphony was written as his graduation piece and remains a remarkable achievement for someone who completed its orchestration only two months short of his 19th birthday. Even so, I don’t recall being gripped quite as much by this work as in this present recording by Mark Wigglesworth and his Netherlands forces. Their relish in the Symphony’s vibrant kaleidoscope of characters and colours, all caught in a fine recording, hold your attention – even throughout passages that sound less than inspired in other hands. Wigglesworth and his musicians are alive to every inflection: for a good idea of the performance’s qualities try the first movement, from the comically sinister Wozzeck-like theme which first sidles onto the stage, to the suave secondary flute theme. Throughout we can hear not only the obvious influence of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, but also the urbane harmonies that recall both Les six (Honegger in particular) and Martin. In other words, this symphony is a very cosmopolitan work, predating both Socialist Realism and Shostakovich’s discovery of Musorgsky and his own ‘Russianness’. I have returned to this performance several times with great pleasure.

The following two Symphonies which generously fill this disc, composed in the approved revolutionary and ‘democratic’ (uplifting choral finale) Soviet style of the 1920s, are less inspired though at times wildly experimental. Be warned that the dynamic contrasts are fairly extreme, so if you turn up the volume to hear the Second Symphony’s almost inaudible opening you will be fairly blasted by its final peroration.”
Daniel Jaffé, BBC Music Magazine; October 2012
“As Mark Wigglesworth’s fine Shostakovich cycle nears its completion, he is filling the gaps and offering a rare glimpse into the musical world of the young composer whose first symphonies emerged between 1924 (when he was 18) and 1929. The First, of course is the most prodigious youthful masterpiece since Mendelssohn’s Octet. Less consistent than their predecessor, the Second and Third show the composer grappling with what a symphony could be. This splendid Dutch band and Chorus are persuasive advocates for the ‘Socialist’ Second and Third, but they shine in a by turns dazzling and soulful account of the ever-astonishing First.”
Hugh Canning, The Sunday Times; June 10th 2012


‘With over 80 minutes of music and demonstration sound to boot, Shostakovich’s first three symphonies make for a compelling disc. The Japanese branch of BMG also managed to get Kondrashin’s classic Moscow Philharmonic accounts on to a single CD but they were nearly five minutes shorter and, despite good remastering, in much coarser recording quality.

The main difference in timing comes with the Second Symphony, where Mark Wigglesworth takes his time especially over the sepulchral opening pages, which really do emerge from silence, as though from early-morning Russian mists. Turn the sound up to room-comfort point and the climaxes becomes deafening; but listen a little above normal playback level and the sound picture is fabulously well defined. There’s just one place where the effect might be queried: the timpani’s fateful summonses in the finale of the First Symphony are so stentorian that the undamped middle note rings on, making the last one seem vaguely out of tune when it actually isn’t.

To highlight the recording quality isn’t to disparage the interpretations or performances. Wigglesworth coaxes a wealth of detail out of his players, and they respond with gusto and agility. Those details are persuasive on the level of characterisation too, and the overall pacing is also well judged. Among many highlights are the lusty singing of the Netherlands Radio Choir – a more plausible impersonation of revolution-inspired workers than any I can recall from a Western chorus – and the sirens in No 2 (rather than Shostakovich’s more commonly heard substitute version for brass). Perhaps there is just a whiff of compromise in the finale of No 1, which could be more helter-skelter, and similarly in the most exposed places of No 3 (though the latter are almost bound to be a little weary, since no orchestra these days is likely to play the piece regularly enough to get it completely under control). Given that the Kondrashin is well-nigh impossible to purchase at the moment, and that the new disc comes with texts, translations and a well-targeted essay by the conductor himself, anyone drawn to this coupling should not hesitate to invest.’
David Fanning, Gramophone; September 2012
“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 cycleRudolf 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; June 2012
“After the miraculous composition by the 18-year-old composer of his First Symphony, it is perhaps no surprise that the next two, despite the overt and even sickening paeans to all things Lenin and Soviet, would be counted as failures both by the public and Shostakovich himself. Shostakovich was commissioned by Lev Shuglin, head of the Propaganda Department of the State Music Publishing House, to write an orchestral work with chorus called Dedication to October, in order to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution. As mentioned, even the composer himself rejected the work (as he did the Symphony 3) later on, and hated the text by Alexander Bezymensky, calling it “abominable”. I don’t blame him a bit—it is full of the stereotypical hagiographical nonsense devoted to one of history’s greatest monsters, and as such will not sit well with most modern audiences. Indeed, both 2 and 3 are rarely performed except in cases of completest series, like this one appears to be. It can be argued that any substitution of any other text might make the work more played, but the through-composed music—considered experimental at the time—lacks a coherent thrust, and is likely to remain on the periphery of the most-performed Shostakovich works.

The Third, to a Semyon Isaakovich Kirsanov text praising May Day and the revolution, was written three years later (1930) and is in much the same vein as Symphony No. 2, though here we find the composer in one of his patented sardonic moods where the music simply doesn’t match the spirit of the texts, a game of mix-and-match that he was to play his whole life and has left posterity with a host of guessable solutions as to the true intention of his actions. This work, more interesting and subtle than the bombastic and ostentatious No. 2, is not as offensively pretentious in its presentation, and has moments of real excitement, harmonic interest, and genuine craft.

Wigglesworth and his Netherlanders would seem the perfect combination for these two works, surpassing my previous favorite Haitink/London Philharmonic from long, long ago 1981 (but still sounding wonderful). We have a number of new Shostakovich series recordings in SACD that contain some memorable readings, but this conductor proves as effective in the more famous later symphonies as most of the others, though individual exceptions can always be found. His No. 1, in a work already graced with brilliant readings like Bernstein/Chicago and many others, is given a solidly resonant performance that captures the university-aged composer’s wit and imagination through impeccable orchestral execution and perfectly-judged tempos.

This is a most auspicious penultimate ending to a new Shostakovich series that promises to be among the best. I can’t believe this is the first time Audiophile Audition has encountered this series, which is well worth checking out in the other symphonies, of which No. 15 is the only other one remaining to be recorded. The Bis surround sound is good.”
Steven Ritter, Audiophile Audition; August 3rd 2012

Arcadia Lost


Sydney Symphony Orchestra


‘There are many reasons Arcadia Lost is wonderful, but the major factor is Mark Wigglesworth’s brilliant conducting. I first heard him a few seasons ago in performances of The Marriage of Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera. From the first measures of the overture I realized that this was something out of the ordinary. Something I could call great. What is that? Nobody can say. Beyond the mathematics of precision, tight ensemble within the various orchestral choirs separately and together, the pulse, the phrasing, lies a mystery. The impression remains in this Vaughan Williams and Britten recital. The style is very profound, and the musical heart of the matter brilliantly illumined from beginning to end. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra has had Beecham and Klemperer on its podium, but I hope they know that Mark Wigglesworth is in every way their peer of these two patriarchs…Wigglesworth is an authentic voice in an inauthentic time, and he makes Sydney one of the prominent music centers of the world.’
Raymond Beegle, Fanfare IV (US) November/December 2012 

‘This is an exquisitely musical and splendidly atmospheric disc…I have had occasion to praise Mark Wigglesworth previously in these pages, if only for his outstanding recording of the Mahler 10th Symphony, which I believe was only issued as a BBC Music Magazine disc, but which is my all-time favorite performance of that work. This is yet further proof that he is an exceptionally special talent.
Indeed, I would place these performances of The Lark Ascending and Flos Campi as far and away the most exquisite, deeply felt, I would even say spiritual performances of these works I’ve ever heard. Wigglesworth draws such extraordinary playing out of the Sydney Symphony that one is left speechless in trying to describe its effect.’
Lynn René Bayley,  Fanfare III (US) November/December 2012 


‘Arcadia Lost is the title of this collection of live recordings, in which Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem sits slightly oddly alongside three of Vaughan Williams’ versions of the pastoral. Yet the excellence of all the performances is more than enough to set aside any questions about whether they belong together. Mark Wigglesworth’s account of the Britten is a slow burner; he resists the temptation to turn it into a virtuoso showpiece for the fine Sydney orchestra from the start, but steadily ratchets up the intensity through the first movement and scherzo, leaving the finale to resolve its tensions. In The Lark Ascending, too, there’s something purposeful rather than just decorative about the scene-painting.’
Andrew Clements, The Guardian; February 24th 2012


‘Here is a beautiful little gem of a release from the remarkable Australian Melba label. Devoted to two of the biggest names in English music, Arcadia Lost features three scores by Vaughan Williams (The Lark Ascending, Flos Campi and On Wenlock Edge) and the Sinfonia da Requiem by Benjamin Britten…Under the inspired, profound and rigorous direction of English conductor Mark Wigglesworth the works presented in this recording recapture a level of emotion too often masked by a disconcertingly academic approach.’
Jean-Jacques Millo, Opus Haute Définition; February 6th 2012


‘Vaughan Williams is the more popular name on this unexpectedly brilliant Australian compilation, and one hopes that those tempted by an Antipodean take on The Lark Ascending will stick around for Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem. Wigglesworth’s live performance is magnificently imposing, reminding you of what an uncomfortable listen this piece can be…Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending…is excellent – Michael Dauth’s pure-toned violin solo is gorgeous, with Wigglesworth’s slimmed down orchestral support a model of discretion.’
Graham Rickson, The Arts Desk; March 3rd 2012


‘Here’s yet another classy SACD offering from the Australian Melba label. The three items featuring the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Mark Wigglesworth’s shapely lead emanate from live concerts held within the Sydney Opera House on the first three days in October 2009. Not even a few isolated coughs and platform noises can tarnish one of the most probing, routine-free readings of The Lark Ascending to have come my way over recent years. A former leader of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Michael Dauth performs with heartwarming conviction and impressive security, and he generates a memorable rapport with Wigglesworth and company. The utterly magical hush distilled from 12’27” is alone worth the price of admission.
There’s plenty of perception, spontaneity and ardor, too, in Flos Campi, which finds the orchestra’s principal viola Roger Benedict in hugely eloquent, technically flawless form (his burnished tone a joy to encounter) and features a beautifully prepared choral contribution from Cantillation. Wigglesworth paces proceedings to a finessed nicety, drawing out every ounce of rapt languor and tender intimacy from RVW’s yearningly sensuous paean to earthly love…What a bewitching, breathtakingly original masterwork it is!
Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem is the interloper in this all-Vaughan Williams programme – albeit a most welcome one, given the unforced eloquence and commitment to its cause displayed by these accomplished artists. I like the purposeful tread of the ominous opening ‘Lacrymosa’, the piercing clash of major and minor at its apex hitting home with formidable cumulative impact, and if the comparatively distant balance slightly tames the savage bite of the hair-raising central scherzo (‘Dies Irae’), there’s no want of soothing compassion in the deeply moving finale (‘Requiem Aeternam’). Overall, Wigglesworth comfortably holds his own against some stiff competition from the likes of Previn, Rattle (both EMI) and Slatkin (RCA).’
Andrew Achenbach, The Classical Review; February 1st 2012

Britten Peter Grimes

Britten Peter Grimes


Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2000, London Philharmonic Orchestra
view recording


“This is the greatest conducting and playing – LPO on top form – of Britten’s first operatic masterpiece I’ve ever heard, by quite some way. It’s agile, fleet and sharp in the choral ensembles – no doubt helped by a relatively slimline ensemble of top young voices – and searingly weighty in the interludes: the crucial central Passacaglia catches fire and blazes… this is an ideal presentation of a masterpiece at its unrelenting best”
David Nice, BBC Music Magazine, December 2010


“Glyndebourne’s Peter Grimes has much to commend it, not least Mark Wigglesworth’s vividly theatrical conducting.”
Andrew Clark, Financial Times, November 2010


“Mark Wigglesworth’s conducting, wonderfully detailed and perfectly paced, is certainly worth hearing.”
Andrew Clements, The Guardian, September 2010


“Mark Wigglesworth’s conducting has remarkable moments: the various threads and textures in the scene at the Boar are clearer and easier to follow than I’ve ever heard; the slashing of the strings goes straight to the heart in the recitative moments before “We shall be there with him”. There’s a jollity to the early moments of Act 3 and a mania to the build-ups to the grand hunt-for-Grimes scenes that really catch fire – and the conductor pays attention to Britten’s bass lines, always an undercurrent of evil…The penultimate scene of the opera is as frightening as it should be.”
International Record Review, November 2010


“Ultimately the real excitement here comes from Mark Wigglesworth’s evocative and tumultuous reading of the score, vividly realised by the LPO.”
Sarah Noble, Limelight Magazine, June 21st 2011


“Mark Wigglesworth’s conducting is expansive and wonderfully detailed, with searing results in the Passacaglia.”
John Allison, The Times; 26th June, 2000


“Mark Wigglesworth conducting the LPO, matches [Trevor] Nunn’s vision turn for turn, swinging between pungent clarity and heart-stopping textural beauty to give the performance of a lifetime.”
Tim Ashley, The Guardian, June 2000


“The performance is memorable for the superlative playing of the London Philharmonic under Mark Wigglesworth…”
Sunday Telegraph, July 2000


“The LPO under Mark Wigglesworth were on top form, superbly delivering the nuances of Britten’s famous instrumental virtuosity in the interludes…”
Opera Magazine, September 2000

Shostakovich Symphony No.11

Shostakovich Symphony No. 11


The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra


“Mark Wigglesworth’s Shostakovich cycle for BIS has been emerging in rather stately fashion since 1997, first with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, with whom he recorded five of the symphonies, and more recently with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. Over the last dozen years, Wigglesworth’s view of Shostakovich has matured, and a work like the 11th Symphony has clearly benefited from that greater depth. Composed to mark the 50th anniversary of the revolution of 1905 though completed two years late, Wigglesworth is at pains to emphasise the symphonic coherence of the sometimes sprawling hour-long work. He gets playing of great refinement from the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, setting the scene in the opening movement The Palace Square perfectly, but can also conjure up raw brutality in the final movement with tingling vividness when required. Sometimes dismissed as little better than film music, the 11th has rarely seemed so cogent.”
Andrew Clements, The Guardian, March 2010


“They say there are none so zealous as converts, and I must admit to that charge where Mark Wigglesworth’s Shostakovich is concerned. The turning point was his recording of the 4th – which first perplexed and then convinced me that this could be the most important Shostakovich cycle of recent times. Prompted by that performance I revisited the scene of my earlier disappointment – the 13th – only to find it as maddening and elusive as ever. However, hearing the 9th and 12th (BIS SACD 1563) and the 8th (BIS SACD 1483) has renewed my admiration for Wigglesworth’s revealing approach to this most enigmatic of composers. 

For those of you reared on the gruff ‘Shostakovich sound’ of Kondrashin and others the refinement of Wigglesworth’s readings may come as something of a shock. Moreover, he takes a broader, more purposeful view of these scores than most, uncovering a wealth of hidden detail and sonorities along the way. This wouldn’t count for much if the results weren’t so compelling. For instance, I was quite sure the gaunt 8th wouldn’t survive Wigglesworth’s measured pace, only to discover that those great climaxes sound all the more powerful for being so doggedly pursued. In particular, the 12th which, like the 11th, is often considered a Cinderella symphony, emerges as a far better work than I had first imagined. Indeed, if anyone can be said to have rehabilitated that neglected work it must be Mark Wigglesworth.

So, how does the 11th fare? As with all iconoclasts – and I’d say that’s a fair description of this conductor – first reactions are likely to be mixed. His tempi and phrasing in the first movement, ‘In the Palace Square’, are very deliberate indeed – just listen to those dark opening chords – yet the music retains a surprising degree of tension. And even though the recording is made at a fairly low level – as is the case with the others in this cycle – dynamic contrasts are very realistic and perfectly manageable. The hushed playing of the Netherlands Radio band is a case in point, every note easily heard, those muttered timp figures clearly articulated.

The second movement, ‘The Ninth of January’, is similarly low-key to begin with, but Wigglesworth soon ratchets up the tension, restless brass baying above insistent drums. And despite the work’s obvious programme, Wigglesworth focuses more on the subtleties and nuances of the score, all of which are projected with striking clarity and implacable logic. That may translate into ‘too cool and detached’ for some, but aided and abetted by a warm, detailed recording Wigglesworth and his Dutch forces can be as ferocious as any when required. The snap of snare drums and those shattering bass drum strokes are superbly caught, the alarums and excursions of battle conveyed with forensic intensity.

After that heat and turmoil Shostakovich strikes a note of utter desolation, the music leached of all warmth and drained of all momentum. Wigglesworth captures that chill as few others have done, ushering in the third movement, ‘In memoriam’, with the softest string playing imaginable. Indeed, the ear-pricking realism of this disc is a perfect complement to the conductor’s passion for detail; many of those barely audible string passages – a distant keening, perhaps – are often lost on less analytical recordings. Just as impressive is the amplitude and weight of the pounding theme that emerges at 7:57, less gritty than some yet no less powerful for that. And listen out for the spectral figure that flickers into life at 10:15; it may be short-lived, but in Wigglesworth’s hands it takes on a frisson all of its own.

The last movement, ‘The Tocsin’, is apt to sound rhetorical at best and bombastic at worst, and it’s a measure of Wigglesworth’s skill that he manages to avoid both pitfalls. There’s plenty of thrust here, the playing as keenly focused as ever. One senses Wigglesworth has the measure of this potentially troublesome movement, each surge sensibly scaled and executed. And listen out for that titanic tam-tam smash at 8:34, the lingering reverberation of which are simply hair-raising. But it’s that juggernaut of a finale that draws together all the strengths of Wigglesworth’s vision, combining raw power with a remarkable degree of refinement, yet without sacrificing momentum or excitement. 

And that’s the nub of it; Wigglesworth’s musical judgment is impeccable, the results invariably illuminating. Yes, the young pretender Vasily Petrenko’s recent recording of the 11th might offer more ‘bang for your buck’, but if you want a deeply satisfying performance of this symphony – and an unrivalled recording – then Wigglesworth’s is the one for you.”
Dan Morgan, Music-Web International, March 2010


“Mark Wigglesworth’s Shostakovich cycle just gets better and better. After a searing Fourth comes this equally intense Eleventh. Spacious, insightful and ultimately overwhelming.”
Dan Morgan, Music-Web International


“Shostakovich’s bleak and disturbing 11th Symphony was composed in 1957 to commemorate the events of the first Russian Revolution in 1905. It is a testament to an oppressed people in an unimaginable period in Russion history. I have long felt that this is one of Shostakovich’s most affecting compositions. It is unforgiving in its emotional content. Mark Wigglesworth has already released 10 other symphonies in his cycle with the BBC Orchestra of Wales to a handful of mixed reviews. Now he takes on the 11th with a different orchestra, and it is extrememly satisfying – as are the orchestra and the lucid SACD sound.

The opening movement ‘The Palace Square’, depicts the desolate calm of the snow-covered square in front of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. Wigglesworth’s strings create a hallowing and transparent sound that perfectly sets the scene for what is to come. A menacing motto-theme is intoned by the well-tuned timpani just before several distant military fanfares from the trumpet and then horn are sounded. Both brass soloists are impeccable. Shostakovich then incorporates several revolutionary songs into the piece; the first, ‘Slushay!’ [Listen!], is introduced by flutes and then repeated by muted trumpets. The second, ‘Arestant’ [Prisoner], is played in the lower strings as a funeral march in the central part of the movement. The Netherlands soloists are absolutely precise and musical.

When the calm is broken by the restless lower strings at the opening of II, we begin to sense that something terrible is inevitable. Crowds of peaceful protestors had gathered in front of the Winter Palace to express their grievances and ask the Tsar for help. On ‘The Ninth of January’, chaos arises and suddenly things turn for the worse. What began as a peaceful protest ended in the savage brutality of the Cossack soldiers, who opened fire and killed over 1000 innocent men, women, and children. Shostakovich unleases this musical fury with a militant side drum that disturbs the calm and begins the slaughter. Tension mounts as the trumpets scream out their desperate motto-theme and the trombones intimidate with their sinister glissandos. Wigglesworth trudges forward with total resolve, and the insistent hammering of the side drum and gong is relentless. If you haven’t been deeply affected by the anger, frustration, and pain of this music by 14:10, you must have ice in your veins.

III is a sort of requiem or ‘In Memoriam’ for people lost in the massacre. The music is largely based on another revolutionary funeral march, ‘You Fell as Victims’. The Netherlands strings properly convey the pain and beauty of Shotakovich’s writing, giving way to an ominous low brass chorale at 5:08 led by the horns. A steady triplet pulse from the timpani and trumpets underline the brooding sting theme of the central section.

Whether the turbulent march of the finale, ‘The Tocsin’ (Alarm Bell), is heroic or not is left open to interpretation. As Wigglesworth mentions in his excellent liner notes, “All revolution is essentially tragic, just as all war is basically civil war, and no bloodshed at any time or any place, can ever be something to celebrate.” The Netherlands brass section is extremely impressive and meets all of the demands of this difficult music with power and authority. The slow section preceeding the final coda recalls the opening ‘Palace Squuare’ music but this time with a solo English Horn singing the song ‘Bare Your Heads’ – here performed with sensitivity and deep emotion. A violent outburst from the bass clarinet drives the music towards the final climax, where despite the powerful G-major chords in the orchestra, the clanging bells defiantly insist on G minor.

I would never be without the Rostropovich recording with the London Symphony (LSO 30: Nov/Dec 2002), but Mark Wigglesworth and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic deserve a spot at the top of the heap for sure. Excellent!”
Buerkle, American Record Guide, August 2010


“Let me say at once that this performance goes straight into the list of the very finest available. The orchestra is magnificent, and the recording is well up to the standards we have come to expect from BIS, though you will have to turn the volume well up in order to hear every detail in the quieter passages. The conductor’s booklet note is a distinct plus in my view, so much more worthwhile than any amount of pretentious musicological rubbish.

And then there is his way with the work itself. He presents it with total conviction as a masterpiece of symphonic writing. There is a coherence and logic about the way the work unfolds here that not all conductors have been able to find. One consequence of this is that some passages are less immediately dramatic than in some other readings. The massacre itself, for example, stunning in this version, lacks the near-hysterical quality found in Rostropovich’s reading with the London Symphony Orchestra. This is no bad thing in my view, and in any case would only be evident in straight comparative listening. Heard on its own terms there is no lack of drama in Wigglesworth’s reading. Just listen to those screaming piccolos in this movement, to the wonderfully reedy bassoons throughout, to the stunning side-drum playing as the instrument launches the massacre, to the ferocious unanimity of the lower strings as the passage gets underway, and at just the right tempo. The slow trombone and tuba glissandi a little later are unspeakably horrifying. No, the drama is there all right, but tempo relations are carefully managed, orchestral textures and dynamics skilfully balanced, allowing the work to emerge as a coherent whole, a single, brilliantly executed canvass. This is maintained as far as the hollow victory of the final page, where the conductor – in an apparently minority view – respects the score by cutting the final bell/cymbal/gong notes at the same time as the rest of the orchestra. I could go on. It would be remiss, for example, not to mention the marvellous cor anglais playing, so bleak, so sad, yet so terribly eloquent and noble, in the long passage before the coda of the final movement.

I think this is a marginally finer performance than Petrenko’s rightly praised reading with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra on Naxos. It makes out a more convincing case for the work in purely musical terms. It does, however, cost quite a lot more. I certainly think it a finer performance than that of Rostropovich.”
William Hedley, Musicweb-International, June 2010


“Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony has fared well on disc, even on SACD. It doesn’t ask for much more than great playing and sound, and an interpretation that keeps the music flowing and lets the climaxes achieve the necessary intensity. Mark Wigglesworth certainly delivers in this respect. He captures the misty tension of the first movement, while the massacre on “The Ninth of January” is both crushing as well as musical (check out the audibility of the violins in the wild triplet passage leading up to the moment itself).

The third movement, “In Memoriam”, could move a touch more quickly (Lazarev is unbeatable here, and daringly swift), but the finale’s endless parade of march tunes comes across with plenty of vigor and instrumental color. The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic plays very well, with impressive brass and percussion, and the SACD multichannel sonics have powerful impact without quite matching LINN’s brilliance for Lazarev. So if you’ve been collecting this series, which has developed handsomely over the years, you can purchase this release with complete confidence.”
David Hurwitz, Classics Today, March 2010


“Since recommencing in Hilversum, Mark Wigglesworth’s Shostakovich cycle has set a consistently high standard in this much-recorded repertoire. A surefire success – in both East and West – during its early years, the Eleventh Symphony (1957) has latterly regained its initial popularity, though the tag of superior film score is still levelled as a criticism. Not that Wigglesworth admits of such connotations: his is a formally cohesive conception in which neither generalized atmosphere nor specific evocation intrudes upon the music’s compositional rigour.

At 63 minutes, this account is poined cannily between the incisive and monumental. Thus ‘The Palace Square’ fulfils its scene-setting function while at the same time ‘placing’ those ideas to be evolved, rather than developed as such, with absolute sureness of intent (as at 5’48”). Nor, for all the sparseness of musical texture, is there any lack of intensity when the movement builds to its climax (from 9’33”) via a polyphony of concrete motifs and more graphic (folksong) allusions, while the latter stages (from 13’09”) return to the initial stasis with no loss of focus. In ‘The Ninth of January’, Wigglesworth builds tension painstakingly over the movement’s cumulative first half, allowing the Tchaikovskian theme due space on its return (4’51”) then following the music’s epic unfolding through to an ominous recall of the work’s opening (9’48”) prior to the main onslaught. Neither ruthlessly driven nor portenously weighty, this invokes catastrophe without underlining it – so making the aftermath (15’39”) the more powerful in its rapt concentration and spectral allusions. Others may have found greater physicality in this movement but few have made it sound so inevitable.

Generally considered the work’s high point, ‘In memoriam’ is a funeral march underpinned by a free passacaglia and Wigglesworth is mindful to ensure that the opening pizzicato motion is given time to register so it can be ‘projected’ onto ensuing events by the mind’s ear. The song ‘You fell as victims’ is soulfully rendered by violas (0’57”) but with enough impassiveness to complement the doleful incantation on wind (5’06”), before strings break free for a climax (7’57”) in which anger and regret are as one. This tails off into hushed uncertainty, from where the brazen launch of ‘The Tocsin’ could not provide greater contrast. Accumulation of tension is again the more remoreseless given Wigglesworth’s eschewal of easy excitement – the interweaving of revolutionary songs (from 2’54”) rendered with exemplary precision and the climactic confrontation of themes thrown into relief by the plangent cor anglais monologue (8’30”) which places everything before it in entirely new perspective. After this, the final minutes (11’51”) propel the work to its conclusion with a mixture of elation and trepidation the more potent for being curtailed at its height.

Certainly Wigglesworth’s account can rank with the finest available – akin to Paavo Berglund’s in its concentration on motivic essentials, while being less inhibited than Bernard Haitink’s and less overwrought than Mstislav Rostropovich’s. Nor is there the detachment of the oddly uninvolving Mikhail Pletnev, or the occasion loss of focus in Vasily Petrenko’s otherwise persuasive reading. The sound is on a par with earlier instalments in this series, and Wigglesworth pens a balanced note on the work: whether St Petersburg in 1905 or Budapest 1956 makes no difference when the performance is its own justification.”
Richard Whitehouse, International Record Review, June 2010


“Mark Wigglesworth’s recording cycle of the Shostakovich symphonies continues here with the Eleventh. The “Palace Square! movement is carefully muted yet intense, atmospheric without losing its forward momentum – unlike Rostropovich/LSO (LSO Live 30), or worse still, the overwrought Polyansky/Russian State Symphony Orchestra (Chandos 9476). Some may prefer it faster still, as in Lazarev/Royal Scottish (Linn 2470, but there’s never any sense here that the journey is less interesting than the destination, and when “The Ninth of January” begins, all the tension that has been slowly building under Wigglesworths’s taut control is unleashed in a toccata of fury driven by visceral strings, pointed percussion, and gunshot snare drums. The balance of textural detail is extraordinary, bringing a clarity to the symphonic argument that some may find cold, but I consider almost revelatory in a symphony that’s too often been dismissed as movie music. Bychkov/Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra (Avie 2062) is certainly more violent and hotly persuasive, but Wigglesworth makes this movement work by a mixture of anger, beauty, and logic that I’ve seldom heard before.

The “In memoriam” movement is among the faster versions, and closest to Bychkov in that respect, but where the latter has an undercurrent of fire, Wigglesworth is all ice. It balances repose with a measure of urgency, clarity with an inflected dynamic palette that keeps matters from skating on the surface. The climax is handled well, and with a proper balance and tempo that prevents it from descending into the commonplace. Better still is the difficult decrescendo to the return of the Palace Squre motif, with no intensity lost along the way. The “Tocsin” is also on the fast side, though as 13:38, a minute behind Bychkov. (Still, that’s roughly 2:30 ahead of slo-mo Rostropovich.) It presses forward in a grim, tightly controlled way that minimizes the movement’s tendency to bombast, while still detonating its explosions as required. The return yet again of the Palace Square motif is joined to a magnificently cantabile clarinet solo, the finest in any version of this symphony that I’ve heard to date, and the conclusion is again managed with such attention to a balance between elements that it never loses focus.

I have nothing but praise for the engineering. A bit low in volume, it clearly delineates all sections and soloists without obviously spotlighting anyone. The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic strings have a sheen here that shouldn’t be confused with Polyansky’s obsession with richness, and the brass at the centre of “In memoriam” have a dark, Wagnerian perfection.

On balance, the second and final movements are probably the best things in the performance, while some will find “The Palace Square” lacking energy, and “In memoriam” lacking in rebellious grief. But I’m frankly bowled over by the combination of beautiful playing and intensity on this album, the former never used as an anodyne against the latter. This is definitely one of the best Shostakovich 11ths around, and well worth the purchase.”
Barry Brenesal, Fanfare, August 2010

Shostakovich Symphony No.4

Shostakovich Symphony No. 4


The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
view recording


“For anyone wearied of Gergiev’s neurotic approach to Shostakovich, the British conductor Wigglesworth’s more restrained take on the barbed tumutluous Fourth Symphony should bring great refreshment. No elbow jabs, no foaming at the mouth, but an inexorable procession of nightmare, grim jest and desolation brilliantly played by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic.”
Geoff Brown, The Times, July 2009


“If all 15 of Shostakovich’s symphonies pose their problems and enigmas, the Fourth is particularly difficult to pin down and perform convincingly. Its vast structural edifice can appear unwieldy and discursive; its language veers alarmingly from bombast to dance-like delicacy, from other-worldly musing to concrete violence; and its massive orchestral forces need very careful marshalling.

Mark Wigglesworth and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, who have previously made compelling recordings of the Symphonies Nos 9, 12 and 13 for BIS, here once again see beyond the snags and deliver a performance of the Fourth that makes a terrific impact, not merely at the weighty climaxes but also in the way that Shostakovich’s material is executed with a sharp ear for detail while at the same time forging appreciable – even if audacious – architectural shape.

The Fourth Symphony was completed in 1936, at a time when Shostakovich’s stock plummeted in Soviet bureaucracy’s estimation as a result of the official condemnation of his opera The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, hailed as a masterpiece only two years earlier. The symphony was withdrawn, the planned premiere abandoned. In such fraught political circumstances, the music’s uncompromising nature would certainly not have come anywhere near satisfying the tenets of dewy-eyed socialist realism, and it was not until 1961 that the climate was sufficiently amenable to a public airing, famously given by Kirill Kondrashin in Moscow. Wigglesworth’s long view of where the symphony is heading is a crucial component of this interpretation, but it also embraces a kaleidoscopic variety of character, be it the icy funeral march at the start of the finale, the passages of stirring brilliance in Shostakovich’s orchestral writing, or those moments where the composer seems to be retreating into his own contemplative thoughts. The emotional force is intense.”
Geoffrey Norris, The Daily Telegraph, July 2009


“This is one of those symphonies which demand so much orchestral preparation that you rarely hear a less than compelling interpretation. For me, Wigglesworth’s latest instalment in his long-term Shostakovich cycle goes even deeper – something I might have expected from his shattering ENO performances of the near-contemporary Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Climaxes here are comparably weighty, but there’s a clarity and an expressive care throughout which inform even those first-movement passages where Shostakovich seems suspended in a pale kind of purgatory…Like Abbado and Rattle, Wigglesworth dares genuine pianissimi. Everything is humanised so that the conflict of the finale is a whirlwind battle rather than a grinding mechanism, and even the circus ditties before the final storm have charm as well as nuance. The end is as mesmerising as it can be.”
David Nice, BBC Music Magazine, October 2009


“The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra plays magnificently, both as individuals and as a team. Mark Wigglesworth is particularly associated with Shostakovich, and is a conductor of the first rank.

In the mammoth outer movements, both more than twenty minutes in duration, the tempi tend to be broader than some performances, though there is such an ebb and flow of tension and relaxation that such glib generalizations mean relatively little. What is most remarkable about this interpretation is the sureness of line and how it combines with attention to detail, both in the performance and thanks to the recording. Nor does this imply sacrifice to sheer impact; the power is imposed as soon as the opening subject is heard. The first movement contains one of the symphonic literature’s greatest challenges to orchestral strings: a wild fugue at the fastest of speeds. It is a case of ‘who dares wins’, and Wigglesworth challenges his excellent orchestra to play with the utmost energy and commitment.

In any symphony since Beethoven, the resolution and justification of the journey is an issue of much import. Wigglesworth triumphs in this sense, and his release of the climactic chorale in the finale is wonderfully done. For example, when this closing phase takes over the musical line, the clarity of the ostinato played by the timpani (two players) is marvelously clear and articulate. Wigglesworth, then, has given us a great performance of a symphony that can be claimed as Shostakovich’s greatest. As with any masterpiece, the best performance is always ‘the next one’, but this will do for now.”
Terry Barfoot, Music-Web International, September 2009


“Mark Wigglesworth…has a very real and admirable ability to emphasize detail and rhythmic precision without sacrificing the necessary power. In the first movement’s crazy fugue, for example, even though you might wish he had made a bit less of a diminuendo after the entrance of the galloping rhythm in strings and percussion, the very clarity of texture means that the music loses very little in the way of excitement, and it gains a melodic interest you might never suspect that it has.

Similarly, the climactic chorale in the finale never has been done better, and for once you can actually hear the timpani ostinato that gets it going. It’s a real rhythm, and not just the usually muddy rumble in the depths of the orchestra. Wigglesworth also handles the preceding ballet suite with memorable charm, grace, and humor, and he carries his players along with him every step of the way. The result is an interpretation that gives the music a very different character from most of the other slowish versions (Haitink’s for example). The sonics are very natural and well-balanced, but also a bit low level (this is more pronounced in multi-channel format). You really need to crank up the volume to capture the climaxes, but if you’re system can handle it, you’re going to love this.”
David Hurwitz, Classics Today, July 2009


“Mark Wigglesworth’s Shostakovich cycle has featured several front runners, of which this account of the Fourth Symphony is one such…Consistency is the watchword throughout, not least in a clarity of conception and an attention to detail that banishes any thought of the mundane…Wigglesworth paces the finale’s initial funeral march ideally, ensuring the climax does not detract from its exquisitely yearning continuation on strings…There is no lack of contenders for a Shostakovich Fourth of choice…yet there is no real reason why Wigglesworth should not join them.”
Richard Whitehouse, International Record Review, October 2009


“Wigglesworth has the requisite dramatic sweep and staying power for this unusual, large piece; he leaves room for the ambivalent traits, and for the alternation between classical and modern, between rigid and free form. He has a feel for the upturns and the downturns, for the sometimes violent contrasts, for the surprises and for the grotesque and sarcastic elements of the score. The Netherlands Radio Philharmonie play with precision, flexibility, virtuosity, excitement, and rich contrast; they master the great storms as well as the reserved passages of the piece, they unfold the intimate music of the chamber music passages of the second and third movements, and find exactly the right intonation for the piece. The transparency of the playing is perfect; not a single detail is lost.”
Klassik Heute, September 2009


“After a precociously talented First Symphony – Shostakovich was just 19 – he penned two patriotic crowd-pleasers before embarking on a formative Fourth. The latter is a key work, as it’s the seed-bed for much of the music that germinates and takes hold in Shostakovich’s later symphonies. Moreover, it was being completed just when Pravda launched that infamous attack on his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Despite this savaging, which signalled a major shift in the cultural climate of Soviet Russia, Shostakovich completed the Fourth Symphony, only to withdraw it before the scheduled premiere in December 1936.

Kiril Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic gave the first performance of the Fourth in 1961; indeed, this conductor’s complete Shostakovich cycle for Melodiya (MEL CD 10 01065) has become something of a benchmark for these works. For comparative purposes I have selected his performance of the Fourth, recorded in 1966, a 1985 Czech Radio broadcast from Gennady Rozhdestvensky and the USSR Ministry of Culture band (Praga PR 7250 090) and Neeme Järvi’s RSNO account on Chandos CHAN 8640. There are others including a Dresden one from Kondrashin on Profil. but this trio is typical of the trenchant, uncompromising ‘Shostakovich sound’ to which we have become accustomed.

Enter British conductor Mark Wigglesworth and his Dutch band, who are recording a Shostakovich cycle for BIS. Not too long ago I listened to their version of the Thirteenth (BIS SACD 1543) and I have to say I was sorely disappointed. Anyone who has heard Kondrashin or Haitink in this monumental, crushing work will surely find Wigglesworth’s cooler, more detached reading somewhat underwhelming. That was my initial response – more on that later – so I was a little apprehensive about reviewing this new Fourth.

It’s a strange work and, to my ears at least, it’s the one where Shostakovich finally hits his symphonic stride. Structurally it’s quite a challenge, with two potentially unwieldy half-hour movements dwarfing a short middle one. From the outset it’s clear Wigglesworth’s is going to be a more measured reading than most. That said, his is by far the best recording here, warm, spacious and incredibly detailed. By contrast Kondrashin and Rozhdestvensky are pretty ropy, the latter let down by a woolly sounding bass drum and scrawny playing.

Despite these sonic shortcomings the Russian orchestras have that rough, sometimes downright uncouth, sound that gives these symphonies their edge or ‘tang’. Surely the Dutch band is much too cultured and polite for this music? The tension and turmoil that lurk behind the notes is particularly well conveyed in Järvi’s reading, aided and abetted by a typically wide-ranging Chandos recording that copes easily with the symphony’s sudden mood-swings. I couldn’t help feeling that not enough of that bipolarity comes through in Wigglesworth’s account of the first movement, although the opening shrieks and the timp crescendi at 21:25 do add some much-needed menace to the mix.

To be fair, Kondrashin and Rozhdestvensky aren’t at their most cohesive in this movement, and at least Wigglesworth makes it all hang together tolerably well. To my mind, Järvi strikes the best balance between structure and content here, the two Russians less successful in this regard. Make no mistake, though, Wigglesworth has clearly thought this through, and even if one equivocates about the end result there’s no denying the cool logic and clarity of his conception.

The same applies to the Mahlerian central movement, Moderato con moto, which Kondrashin and Järvi shape most convincingly. True, there is plenty of point and elegance to the Dutch band’s playing, but the music’s more fanciful elements are underplayed. That said, the BIS recording is amazingly lucid at this point, picking up every nuance and colour. Indeed, both the CD and SACD layers sound first-rate.

Not surprisingly, the gentle figure that ushers in the final movement sounds as atmospheric as one could hope for. The first big peroration comes off exceptionally well – wonderfully crisp and articulate – and even if Kondrashin and Järvi are less tidy they are more extrovert at this point. Curiously, Kondrashin’s reading seems quite swift, whereas Wigglesworth’s scrupulous attention to detail is inclined to make his version feel lengthier than it actually is. For the record, comparative timings of all four recordings are pretty much the same, which just goes to show how misleading such comparisons can be.

Wigglesworth’s focus and discipline certainly pay off in the climaxes of the final movement, but again it’s Järvi who conveys the unruly elements of this music most tellingly. For sheer beauty of sound, though, Wigglesworth wins hands down; the ghostlier interludes are just superb, the harps magical. Particularly delightful are those Wunderhorn-like tunes, which make me long to hear Wigglesworth in Mahler. And if you think he can’t be visceral just sample the big tune that thunders in at 19:54. Indeed, this performance is a slow burner, the flame growing ever higher until the final conflagration. As for that spooky finale, it’s seldom seemed so equivocal, the celesta sounding especially eerie over the barely audible beat of the timps.

I started this review with some misgivings but I have to end it by saying this is a very persuasive performance of a notoriously difficult symphony. True, it’s not as wild and dishevelled as some, nor is it as propulsive, but it’s no less arresting for that. Wigglesworth doesn’t displace Järvi as my preferred recording of this work, but it has made me want to revisit – and re-appraise – his version of the Thirteenth. Kondrashin remains very special, not least because of his direct link to the composer, but perhaps the time has come to re-evaluate these symphonies. Not only the way they are played, but also the way we listen to them. If that’s the case, then Wigglesworth’s Shostakovich could be the new benchmark for these works.”
Dan Morgan, Music-Web International, August 2009


“This new recording of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra under Mark Wigglesworth is rock solid and measures up to the very top of this moment. The conductor inspires the orchestra to sublime ensemble playing, to enormous but always sophisticated explosions of sound and a crystal-clear rhythm. Next to these Mahlerian sound expansion there are numerous moments of chamber musical refinement…”
Willem Veldhuizen, Klassieke Zake, September 2009


“It may not be immediately obvious why this latest recording of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony is one of the most distinguished in recent years. From the outset, Mark Wigglesworth seems to be taking a deliberately pedestrian approach to one of the most aggressive symphonic openings movements in the repertoire. It’s not a start that grabs the listener’s attention: the snarling first theme marches stoically along, phlegmatically refusing to indulge in shock tactics of any kind. And this approach characterises the whole performance. There are no surprises here: no exaggerated grotesquery, no sinister ‘squeezing’ of chords, no climaxes so monumental that they have to be sound-engineered into submission. In fact, the engineering work deserves praise in its own right, with a bright and clear, distinctly ‘live’ sound. The playing of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra is also exemplary: taut and crisp without being dull.

By the end of the first movement, Wigglesworth has kept his powder dry. And this is no bad thing: though a listener used to being overwhelmed by it could feel disappointed, the best is still to come. The second movement has similar strengths: Wigglesworth is at his best in the hypnotic passages of both first and second movements, where the whole tone switches from the corporeal to the dreamlike. He does this particularly well in the first movement second subject group, where the waltz fragments float past hazily, veiled and strangely unreal. And in the Moderato we find the same quality, with glassy strings and hypnotically thrumming bass.

Once the finale starts, it becomes clear that the restraint of the first two movements has been carefully planned. While the Mahlerian tone of the moderato was perhaps underdone, in the finale it comes into its own: wind solos are no longer smoothed over, but become angular and militaristic. There is a very restrained sense of menace underpinning the opening march, with its meticulously controlled tempo and subtly nuanced bassoon phrasing. Abrupt changes of mood bedevil every performance of this work, but here, after the first brash climax, the effect is magical. With wonderful sensitivity, Wigglesworth allows the music to draw its first breath of sweeter air: for a moment it is wistful and sincere. Then – again for the first time – Wigglesworth lets the orchestra really have its head, plunging into a whirlwind scherzo and emerging into a bewildering gallery of masks: puppet-like, funny, clownish, clumsy. All are characterised with peppery relish. When the masks smile, the music smiles too, which is precisely what makes the final dropping of the mask so overwhelming at the end. Not all conductors manage to play this section straight: some evidently feel that such humorous or lightweight music is too incongruous in a Shostakovich symphony to be taken at face value. But such music is real enough if accepted for what it is: a series of masks, assumed and discarded at will.

The work’s ‘grandiosomania’ that apparently embarrassed Shostakovich in later life (that is, before he heard it performed in 1961) comes violently to the fore with the first coda. Grim-faced in its stretched-out tempo, this is an insane and ugly peroration; then we are suddenly dropped into the abyss. Powerful percussion becomes a faint heartbeat, illuminated by pinpricks of light on wind. Then we sink even lower into the darkness, where only harp, strings and celesta are left. It is an unforgettable ending, and its execution here is about as perfect as any I have heard.”
Pauline Fairclough, DSCH, July 2009

Shostakovich Symphony Nos. 9 & 12

Shostakovich Symphony Nos. 9 & 12

The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
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“Mark Wigglesworth’s Shostakovich cycle has been gathering momentum without compromising its particular characteristics of high seriousness, fine detailing and a certain fierceness of articulation.”
David Gutman, Gramophone Magazine, December 2007
“The latest instalment in Mark Wigglesworth’s ongoing survey of Shostakovich’s symphonies offers many of the virtues that were apparent in some of his earlier releases. Apart from outstanding demonstration sound which is more than a match for the impressive SACD set from Kitajenko and Gürzenich Orchestra on Capriccio, there is the impressive orchestral playing of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic boasting both incisive ensemble and distinctive individual contributions.

Admittedly Wigglesworth doesn’t go for the jugular in these symphonies to the same extent as Kondrashin or Mravinsky. Indeed few conductors rival the latter in managing to generate the maximum amount of visceral excitement out of the first movement of the 12th. But if Wigglesworth’s interpretation operates at a lower level of intensity, he makes a more conscious effort to weld the work’s diffuse structure into a convincing whole. In this respect I was particularly taken with the brooding and atmospheric account of ‘Razliv’, a movement that usually strikes me as being directionless and repetitive. Wigglesworth is also impressive in building up a considerable head of steam through the crescendo of ‘Aurora’. Even the finale seems more coherent than normal, perhaps because Wigglesworth resists the temptation to over-inflate the musical argument.

If the first movement of the Ninth seems playful rather than sarcastic, Wigglesworth’s fine ear for orchestral sonority always brings out unusual elements in the scoring. His insights make this performance and that of the 12th well worth hearing, and an extremely viable alternative to the complete cycles that are delivered under the direction of Kitajenko, Kondrashin or Jansons.”
Erik Levi, BBC Music Magazine, December 2007
“Shostakovich’s Twelfth Symphony may not be his best, but it certainly doesn’t lack for excellent performances, and this is certainly one of the very finest. The work poses few interpretive problems: it needs to be played hard, fast, and loud, with as much ensemble precision as possible. That’s exactly what Mark Wiggleworth does. There are moments here that no other version comes close to matching: the final climax of the first movement, the fusillade of symphonic gunfire that leads into the finale, and much of the latter, including the coda, equaled only by Mravinsky. Wigglesworth’s nicely flowing tempo in the shadowy second movement also works perfectly, sustaining interest while giving shape to this subdued music…This is definitely worth hearing. If you don’t like the piece to begin with, this recording just may change your mind.”
David Hurwitz, Classics Today, December 2007

Mahler Symphony No.6

Mahler Symphony No. 6

The Melbourne Symphony
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“I have long thought Mark Wigglesworth to be a conductor of ever-growing stature, and, though still a very young man, he has built a worldwide reputation since winning the Kondrashin Competition in 1989. He seems able to turn his hand to most composers and styles – I recently heard a radio broadcast of a very stylish performance of Haydn’s 99th Symphony and a thrilling account of John Pickard’s The Flight of Icarus with the San Francisco Symphony.

So, as you can imagine, I came to this disk with open ears and a lot of expectations. Let me say right away that I was not disappointed. Like much of Mahler, this is a big work and tends to sprawl, thus a firm hand is needed to guide the orchestra, and listeners, through the many and various aspects of the tragic events which unfold during the its course.

The first movement is marked Allegro energico, ma non troppo, Heftig, aber markig (fast and energetic, but not too much – heavy, but pithy). Wigglesworth has, I think, taken his time to work out exactly what Mahler means by this and in consequence, he chooses a very deliberate tempo for the movement, not as slow as Barbirolli on his justly famous EMI recording (0094636528526 – coupled with Ein Heldenleben), but slower than most. However, the music doesn’t appear to be  played slowly. In its own way it is energetic and fast, but certainly not too much, in addition to which Wigglesworth employs a certain necessary heaviness and, considering pithy to mean “to the point”, he gets to the point right from the start. Wigglesworth makes his tempo really work, and as a consequence there is more cohesion between the fast, argumentative, music and the slower middle section. His interpretation really comes into its own with the coda, which starts very slowly and purposefully, with the most menacing contrabassoon, gong and trombones, before taking off in the rush to the conclusion. But there is no lack of poetry – the Alma theme is well shaped and is given more than sufficient breathing space to make its full effect. Wigglesworth also manages to avoid any feeling of militarism, which can so often take over because of the trenchant march rhythms which suffuse this music. I must also mention that the exposition is repeated and this is so essential for, in Mahler’s scheme of things, we never hear this music again in the same way.

There is one problem: the recording. This music is recorded at such a low level that you really have to turn up the volume control to get a reasonable perspective on the music – and even then some detail is lost – where are the cow-bells, for instance? The poor trombone occasionally gets lost somewhere in the texture, and the percussion is rather distant.

Then the scherzo starts, and with the immediate attack of timpani, cellos and basses we are in a different sound-world altogether. Here all is clear and bright with a really good perspective on the spread of the sound, and with this better point of view, more detail is available. This recording was made at two different live performances and I wonder if, rather than edit the best bits from both performances together – supposedly to give us the best performance available – we have been given different movements from the two performances. Certainly, the music-making has a very live feel about it and seems to be without editing within the movements. I do hope that this is the case. Therefore, I wonder if the difference in sound is because the performance on the 15th was given at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, whereas the later performance was given in the evening? The different climate conditions could have affected the sound.

But back to the music. It seems incredible that Mahler dithered about the order of the two middle movements when it is so obvious that this scherzo continues the argument from the first movement, albeit in a totally different way. Wigglesworth takes the tempo marking at its face value Wuchtig (weighty) and again takes a very deliberate approach to the music, with a forthright and purposeful forward  motion – but this is not to say that he doesn’t release the tension when the music demands it. This is very well done. And so is the Andante, which contains some lovely playing and superb phrasing. The long lines are truly sung and he makes the climax grow naturally from what has gone before. Wonderful music making.

The sound is even better on the second CD, which contains the finale. This is a long, complicated, piece of work and very difficult to make sense of because of the somewhat diffuse construction. Again, Wigglesworth has obviously thought out what he wants and where he is going. I especially like the way he makes the transitions from tempo to tempo easily and bonds the many different moods and events together making them part of a whole rather than treating them as a collection of separate episodes. No mean feat this. After a re-statement of the Alma theme, transformed, on violins, at the start, Wigglesworth treats the slow introduction as a true preface, presenting the ideas and allowing the tempo to ever so slightly increase so that when we arrive at the devastating allegro we are prepared for it. Then off we go, hammer blows dealing with the fate of the artist (the third one missing, after Mahler’s thoughts), and very well captured by the engineers, grotesque brass fanfares, march rhythms, scurrying, frightening, string runs and timpani underpinning the music with their incessant rhythms. It’s thrilling stuff and Wigglesworth and the orchestra throw all caution to the wind and let go in wild abandon. I especially enjoyed the grotesque use of twigs hitting the bass drum rim at 13.58 – a truly macabre moment. The coda is drawn in long, tortured, lines, the brass lament poignant in its very simplicity and the final bars, when they come, are devastating in their intensity. Wigglesworth, rather bravely, almost throws away the final pizzicato A and there’s a full, pregnant, 17 seconds of silence before the audience applauds – and I am glad that this was put on the recording for it helps us to unwind from the experience we have just had.

On the Melbourne Symphony’s website, advertising these performances, it is stated that “… this rarely-performed symphony will be a major musical event in 2006.”  It’s interesting to think that this Symphony can be considered rarely performed, but perhaps it is in Australia. If that is so then this performance must have gone some way to rehabilitate it ‘down under’.

The performance? Excellent. The playing is first rate – the brass in particular make a fine sound, the horns in the finale are glorious, and the muted trumpets snarl nastily, just as they should. The wind and strings sing their hearts out – although on a couple of occasions I found the sound to be slightly under-strung. The percussion underpin everything, although they are sometimes rather backwardly balanced so they don’t make their full effect.

The sound? Well, apart from my reservations about the first movement it is very fine, crisp and clear, with a good perspective on a very full orchestra, and it improves as the performance progresses.

I started this review with the statement that Mark Wigglesworth was a conductor of ever-growing stature. I was wrong, He is a great conductor. The power, insight and intelligence he shows in shaping this performance, and bringing it to fruition, proves it.

Despite my few reservations, this is, without doubt, another Recording of the Month.”
Bob Briggs, Music-Web International, October 2007

Shostakovich Symphony No.13

Shostakovich Symphony No. 13


The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, The Netherlands Radio Choir, & Jan-Hendrik Rootering, Bass
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“It is outstanding in every way. You only have to hear the violins’ slashing accents at figure 4 in the first movement, where the soloist sings “and fine ladies with their lacey frills shriek and poke their parasols in my face,” to know that Wigglesworth & Co. are fully attuned to the music’s expressive world. The menacing second subject, with its description of a pogrom, erupts with an impressive sense of menace, while the big climaxes in the first, third, and fourth movements are as powerful and intense as anyone could ask. Bass soloist Jan-Hendrik Rootering has the range for the part and an evenness of tone unmatched by most Russian singers, while the men of the Netherlands Radio Chorus sing as though their lives depended on it, with a genuine understanding of the words.

But it’s not all just blood and thunder. Wigglesworth’s handling of the opening ritornello theme in the finale, “A Career”, has a pastoral gentleness unmatched by just about any other performance, and the closing pages are simply magical. So while, for example, Barshai (Brilliant Classics) is unmatched in the first movement for sheer terror and a sense of impending doom, I think it’s probably safe to say that this performance offers the most satisfying conclusion captured thus far. And if you want “Babi Yar” in terrific multichannel sound, this version also is the way to go. So there you have it: a performance and recording about as good as they come. I don’t know how many “Babi Yars” you have, or how many you may think you need, but if you’re in the market, then let this one (along with Barshai’s and Haitink’s and Kondrashin’s and…) be one of them.”
David Hurwitz, Classics Today, November 2006
“Occasionally, among the avalanche of Shostakovich centenary-year recordings, along comes one that really makes a difference. Wigglesworth secures brilliantly characterised playing from the orchestra, with a fine contribution from Rootering.”
Malcolm Hayes, Classic FM Magazine, December 2006
“Mark Wigglesworth’s Shostakovich cycle continues with probably the most convincing Thirteenth to have appeared in the West….Wigglesworth keeps the work moving forward with keener onward momentum than Haitink and a greater formal continuity than Jansons…[He] is unusually successful in maintaining tension over the volatile intermezzo that is ‘Fears’ while the close of the finale has an ethereal lightness that perfectly captures Shostakovich’s evocation of the eternal within the human spirit.

Almost 45 years on from its première, the audacity of a work such as Babi Yar in confronting social hypocrisy can seem hard to recapture. Wigglesworth’s reading may not be the last word – but with SACD sound bringing out hitherto unsuspected subtleties in Shostakovich’s scoring, it conveys the work’s emotional power to impressive effect. As a modern complement to Kondrashin’s studio version, one cannot do better.”
Richard Whitehouse, International Record Review, October 2006
“Wigglesworth has plenty of ideas about timing and articulation, and they are of a piece with a powerful overview.”
David Fanning – Gramophone Magazine, October 2006
“Mark Wigglesworth has produced some of the most provocative interpretations of the Shostakovich symphonies. Admirers of his daringly slow tempi and wide dynamic range will have much to applaud in this sumptuous version of the Thirteenth. His specialty of generating nuances of texture and phrasing is well supported by strong ensemble work on the part of the chorus and orchestra. When the chorus leap to their feet at the start of the second thematic group, the sombre atmosphere is suddenly charged with intense passion. Exceeding all expectations is the sheer monumentality brought to each of the movement’s climactic sections. If the marching staccato notes that lead to the first movement climax trawl under the elongated tempi, the breadth and depth of the movement as a whole simply overwhelms. The climactic sections of the third and fourth movements are likewise drawn from quiet beginnings and stretched to daring proportions, and are profoundly moving.

Bass soloist Jan-Hendrik Rootering sings with utter sincerity. In the Babi Yar lines that identify the poet with the denounced and persecuted Jews throughout history, Rootering conveys a heartfelt sense of humanity and deep personal injury. His voice also possesses a curiously turbulent quality that keeps the line fluid and engaging. At the same time there are moments in the first two movements where the weight and intensity of chorus and orchestra are at odds with his mellow bass tones. His voice is more a vessel of vulnerability and volatility, and as such lacks the outward projection needed to capture the anger and outrage in Yevtushenko’s charged verses. Some of the irony of the Humour movement, already somewhat diluted by the elongated tempi, seems to be lost on him.

Rootering is better suited to the settings of the latter half of the symphony, particularly with At The Store, which calls for expressions of compassion rather than moral indignation. He embraces these verses about women enduring daily hardships with exquisite sensitivity. He achieves rare poignancy in the tender passage with falling glissandi that leads to the powerful choral and orchestral climax. The broadly-paced percussive strokes on the part of the orchestra in the climactic aftermath provide a stunning affirmation. A finer rendition of this movement would be hard to find. In the subsequent Fears movement, Rootering’s wide vibrato set against the eerily trilling strings creates a most effective atmosphere of foreboding. Nowhere else but in the Wigglesworth version will we find the chorus’ gradual crescendo in the Soviet-style military march spanning such a wide dynamic range and reaching such a stirring peak. Rootering may not meet everyone’s expectations in the first half of the symphony, but Wigglesworth realizes his unique vision of the work superbly.”
Louis Blois, DSCH, November 2006
“You can tell much about a conductor’s devotion to Shostakovich’s most outspoken protest-symphony from the opening bars. Here, in the middle distance of a recording rich on perspectives (both in its super-audio and standard formats), woodwind and muted brass proclaim a smooth, stalking objectivity. Wigglesworth immediately extends his spacious authority, in a cycle which so far deserves respect and admiration, to his Dutch soloist and chorus. Jan-Hendrik Rootering, a thoughtful Hans Sachs in Wigglesworth’s Covent Garden run of Die Meistersinger, goes farther than any bass I’ve heard in introspective warmth of phrasing at the heart of the Symphony, a heartbreaking setting of poet Yevtushenko’s salute to the enduring women of Soviet Russia. That quality, along with the veiled orchestral lines and the discreet percussion taps, only make the climax at the words ‘it is shameful to short-change them! It is sinful to short-weight them!’ the more overwhelming. As with the Symphony’s other tidal-wave crescendos, the professional weight of Simon Halsey’s Netherlands Radio Choir basses brings burnished focus to savage indignation, eased only by tender Netherlands Philharmonic soloists in the final balm of grace. The performance may not quite have the searing authenticity in every bar evinced by Barshai’s Cologne Babi Yar – Wigglesworth, I’m sure, would be the first to bow before those who lived through the events so baldly evoked – but it’s a noble effort all the same.”
David Nice, BBC Music Magazine, October 2006

Shostakovich Symphony No.8

Shostakovich Symphony No. 8


The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
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“After a four-year gap, Wigglesworth resumes a Shostakovich cycle that began in 1997 with an impressive Symphony No 7, given with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. With the wartime Eighth — as much an indictment of Stalin as of Hitler — he has turned to the excellent Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. 

That vast, tragic arch of a first movement is typically unhurried and deeply affecting, while the sharp savagery of the first scherzo and the screeching relentlessness of the second are reinforced by Wigglesworth’s ability to give even frenetic music its space. Some might prefer more rawness at such moments, but the bleak slow movement and the ambivalent finale cement a fine performance of deep understanding.”
Stephen Pettit, The Sunday Times, November 2005
“Once the least-loved of all of Shostakovich’s symphonies for its apparent refusal to celebrate Russia’s victory in the war, the tragic Eighth is now a favourite in the canon. Mark Wigglesworth and the leading Dutch broadcasting orchestra do nothing if not enhance this change. They play the gripping central movement with the precision of an unstoppable machine, the trumpet zipping up its scales like a bullfight herald. The quote at the start of a theme from the Seventh Symphony was never so clearly made, and the ferocity of the first and fourth movements is positively bestial…Wigglesworth touches the major key transformation at the conclusion with magical hands, and one wonders how the Russians could have dismissed it so.”
Rick Jones, The Times, November 2005
“Mark Wigglesworth obviously knows his way around this music, and he shapes a powerful and intelligent performance. The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic…play like demons in the first movement’s development section, ultimately arriving at a recapitulation of aptly crushing force…The scherzo has superb weight and rhythmic drive. In the toccata, Wigglesworth finds an ideal tempo: swift enough to be threatening, but also coldly mechanical, with the strings really biting into their parts. A touch of wholly apt vibrato from the solo trumpet in the central section gives the music just the right touch of parade-ground militancy, and the catastrophic climax at the end (with audibly covered timpani, as Shostakovich indicates) segues beautifully into a benumbed passacaglia that never drags…The playing of the woodwinds in the finale, particularly the bassoons and oboes, is simply magnificent, and once again Wigglesworth resists the tendency to linger interminably over its more elegiac moments. The exhausted recapitulation after the final climax is exactly right, and the gentle coda has all of that touching, emotional ambiguity that makes this symphony so moving an experience. Excellent sonics, both in stereo and multichannel formats, help to make this a performance that truly delivers the goods.”
David Hurwitz, Classics Today, November 2005

Shostakovich Symphony No.14

Shostakovich Symphony No. 14


The BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Joan Rodgers, Soprano, & John Tomlinson, Bass
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“Few works stare into the abyss with such chilling candour as Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony. Yet listening to its brilliantly conceived sequence of vocal settings is by no means a depressing experience, particularly if the performance is delivered with conviction, sensitivity and an acute awareness of dramatic pacing. Such qualities are very much in evidence here. Utilising the widest possible dynamic range, from the almost inaudible disembodied ruminations on the ‘Dies irae’ motif that open ‘De profundis’ to the overpowering tom-toms at the close of ‘On the Watch’, Mark Wigglesworth delivers an exceptionally coherent interpretation supported by fine and idiomatic singing from both soloists. What is perhaps most impressive is the fact that Wigglesworth sustains the same level of tension whether in the highly charged operatic frenzy of ‘Loreley’ or the bleak loneliness of ‘The Death of the Poet’. Arguably the only miscalculation is the dynamic of the ghostly fugal interlude from ‘In the Santé Prison’, which in places barely crosses the threshold of audibility. Needless to say, Wigglesworth faces stiff competition, especially from Russian interpreters. In particular, Rostropovich’s 1973 recording, currently available only as part of Teldec’s boxed set of the complete symphonies, communicates an unrivalled level of ferocity in ‘Malagueña’ and vehemence in ‘The Zaporozhian Cossack’s Answer to the Sultan of Constantinople’, while Vishnevskaya sings the opening melodic lines of ‘The Suicide’ with an ineffable poignancy. Yet I find this new version just as compelling. The balance between the voices and the orchestra is much more natural, and there are many places in the score where Wigglesworth scores over his rival in terms of greater subtlety of nuance and lyrical expression. Although BIS might be reprimanded in certain quarters for a distinctly ungenerous playing time, it would be difficult to contemplate any appropriate coupling after the symphony’s shattering coda.”
BBC Music Magazine, November 2001

“Wigglesworth extracts first-class playing and understanding from his players and, in Joan Rodgers and John Tomlinson, a more darkly impassioned pair of British soloists it’s hard to imagine. A draining experience that affirms life rather than grieves its passing.”
Edward Bhesania, The Observer, July 2001
“In the note for the third volume for his complete cycle of symphonies, Wigglesworth argues that this death-obsessed song cycle-conceived while Shostakovich was in hospital three years after his heart attack in 1966- is the composer’s ‘greatest work’. In so brooding and powerful a performance as this, it’s hard to counter his claim. Although he uses English soloists, the vocal contributions of Joan Rodgers and John Tomlinson sound idiomatic in the Russian translations of poems by Lorca, Apollinaire, Rilke, and Küchelbeker. Rodgers may lack the bosomy tones of a native singer, but her singing of The Suicide is achingly poignant, and Tomlinson’s gritty Boris Godunov bass has never sounded better on disc. Under Wigglesworth, the orchestra brings out the devastating bitterness, anger and grief of this harrowing score.”
Hugh Canning, The Sunday Times, August 2001
“Shostakovich entered the Kremlin hospital in 1969, suffering from the polio that was eventually to kill him. He wrote his 14th symphony against time, finishing the piano score within a fortnight. Under Mark Wigglesworth”s exacting direction the orchestra plays with dark, sinewy energy and the disc is a confident and powerful account.”
Anna Picard, The Sunday Independent, September 2001
“Mr Wigglesworth’s thoughtful album notes quote the printed score’s preface, where Shostakovich says, ‘Death s in store for all of us and I for one do not see any good in the end of our lives. Death is terrifying, there is nothing beyond it.” That is precisely the world that Wigglesworth, his young orchestra, and two first-rate soloists re-create before our ears with laser sharp vision and searing, harrowing clarity…It is clear that he is not merely playing music but thinking about what it expresses…Wigglesworth has given us an outstanding recording of this profoundly disturbing, recalcitrant work. I recommend acquiring it and studying it carefully.”
American Record Guide, April 2002
“Mark Wigglesworth continues his highly individual Shostakovich cycle with a No. 14 that demands attention. His Fifth, Seventh and Tenth Symphonies may not be benchmark, but they are definitely worth exploring. This current effort far exceeds my initial expectations of a Western orchestra and soloists attempting to recreate what I believe is a uniquely Russian experience.

With Rudolf Barshai having set impossibly high standards from the very start of the symphony’s lifespan (Russian Disc RD CD 11 192), and Rostropovich with Vishnevskaya practically making the work their own (Revelation RV10101), anyone attempting this symphony has two extremely hard acts to follow. With this in mind, I approached the current recording with some scepticism, but was pleasantly surprised; Wigglesworth has done his homework well. The BBC Wales Orchestra try to respond with the kind of tough, razor-sharp urgency required to match Barshai’s white-hot Moscow ensemble of 1969. While they may not always deliver this kind of precision, they pull no punches in creating just the right sound for this symphony. The percussion section is especially deserving of praise – they know that the score demands from them not mere rhythmic support but all-out bloodletting.

While this band cannot match the Muscovites in sheer power and grit, they do bring a wonderful subtlety to the more delicate sections of the score. In this way, Wigglesworth’s Fourteenth is one of dramatic contrasts, and this aspect is perhaps its most attractive feature.

Joan Rodgers is impressive in the soprano role, delivering a searching, passionate performance that is long on drama. Although she has a weak start on the opening note of the Malagueña, she recovers and rides the work’s roller-coaster emotions with great style. She makes her mark in The Suicide, which is as chilling as it is surreal, and elsewhere displays great sensitivity, for example in the recapitulation of On The Watch.

John Tomlinson brings some nice dramatic touches to the bass part, but occasionally sounds a little uncomfortable with the language. As an experienced Wagnerian bass, his delivery is solid and aptly dark, although his presence on this recording is not as distinguished as Rodgers’.

The question, then, is does this new entry measure up to the competition? In terms of sound quality, it offers as spacious and exciting a sound as do Järvi (Deutsche Grammophon 437 785-2) and Turovsky (Chandos CHAN 8607) in their respective issues. However, the acoustics are a little reverberant, and the excessive dynamic range that Mark Roberts reported in his review of Wigglesworth’s Tenth (see DSCH No. 12) resurfaces on this recording, impeding appreciation of the softer passages.

Performance-wise, this account tries but does not quite manage to recapture the ferocity of Barshai. It is far better in many areas than Järvi’s, which I believe is the closest peer to the present recording. Both conductors approach the symphony in similar style.

Technically, Wigglesworth handles the Lorelei movement far better than Järvi, but his extremely slow and soft handling of the pizzicato-col legno sections of In Santé Prison, which barely rise above a whisper, is a major setback. This movement ends up being weak, with no advantage taken of the sudden appearance of what appears to be a DSCH motif in the tutti strings at the end of the pizzicato section.

Wigglesworth, for all his finesse, also fails to make the most of some of the more startling effects in the score, such as the crescendo pile-up of consecutive seconds that lead to the bell toll in Lorelei, or the swarming block chords that plague the climax of The Zaporozhian Cossack’s Answer.

But while Järvi offers an evenly good performance, and can boast Sergei Leiferkus in the bass role, it is Wigglesworth who delivers surprises that make listening to this disc memorable. For instance, On The Watch gets some rare subtle playing in the softer passages to provide stark contrast with the relentless fortes. The percussionists and soprano take on split personalities, playing out shadows and harsh lights with great success.

To his credit, Wigglesworth has written the highly interesting CD notes, which, besides offering detailed historical information, also provide plenty of food for thought on the symphonic structure of the music. The notes are accompanied by the Cyrillic and English texts to the score.

Enthusiasts of Wigglesworth’s cycle will be more than pleased with his new effort – it is certainly a performance worth experiencing. However, I would still recommend hunting down the Barshai and Rostropovich. For the moment, they still reign supreme, and no amount of improvement in sonic quality in modern recordings can justify giving up the sheer thrill of listening to these remarkable recordings.”
CH Loh, DSCH, October 2001

Shostakovich Symphony Nos. 5, 6 & 10

Shostakovich Symphony Nos. 5, 6, & 10


The BBC National Orchestra of Wales
view recording

“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

Shostakovich Symphony No.7

Shostakovich Symphony No. 7

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales
view recording
“It takes a brave conductor, bold orchestra and super-confident record company to launch another Shostakovich cycle. It’s never been done, too, with an all-British line-up. This new Leningrad is a stunning beginning. Wigglesworth may be young, but he has enormous insights and a powerful sense of the epic. Rejecting bombast, he visualises the march and war of the long opening Allegretto as ‘one of the most extraordinary 15 minutes of symphonic music ever written… agony upon agony’. The bitter-sad memories of the second movement – ‘sad because it is so hard to dance now’ – are bleakly processed. He identifies the angrily passionate Adagio with the ‘terrible story of a nine-year-old girl who was sent to labour camp for twenty years because she was overheard singing a western song’. Yet ‘if we all sing, we can’t be beaten.’ He persuasively conveys Shostakovich’s public and private explanations of the work: ‘a polemic against the statement that ‘when the cannons roar the muse is silent’… the victory of… lofty humanism over monstrous tyranny’. The music’s closing message, he intimates, is one of hope tempered by reality. Evil can be resisted but ‘it will always be with us’. Measured, grippingly phrased and climaxed, with bayonet-sharp tension, distinguished orchestral playing and generally exemplary production, this is an auspicious, weightily serious achievement.”
Artes Orga, BBC Music Magazine, August 1997

“Ironically, Wigglesworth’s account of the Leningrad conveys a greater sense of concentration than I have experienced in any ‘live’ performance; the conductor’s attention to detail results in the listener’s attention being commanded throughout: there are moments where the performance diverges significantly from others, yet when one consults the score, often one finds that the effect is achieved not by altering the composer’s markings but rather by taking them more literally than one hears normally, such as the crescendo in the first movement at 5’40”, more threatening here than in other recordings, or the gruff explosion on horns at 11’23”, toned down elsewhere but played sf on this recording, as marked. Much of the individuality of this reading derives from the care taken over string articulation, such as the crescendi through the duration of the note which Wigglesworth asks for at 15’02” in the finale: Shostakovich has written tenuto at this point, and the crescendi are a valid (although unusual) way to realise this instruction. The strings employ a variety of different degrees of legato or detached bowing and sometimes the articulation is legato when normally one hears the notes separated, or vice versa; although many of the changes in phrasing are not marked in the score, it is known that often Shostakovich allowed performers considerable licence in the freedom with which they approached his music, and since Wigglesworth took the trouble to consult Ilya Musin (1904-1999), the Russian conductor who gave the second-ever performance of this symphony, it may be that some of these variants are as authentic as they are striking: note the piercing use of the violins’ open string at 6’14” in the second movement and from 8’07” in the third movement, an effect which Shostakovich himself did not stipulate specifically here, but which he implied elsewhere (for instance, in the first movement of the Fourth Quartet and the third movement of the Eighth Quartet).

It would be an unfair exaggeration to claim that Bernstein makes his impact primarily through bold gestures, but nevertheless when one compares his reading with Wigglesworth, one finds that it is the latter who characterises every detail of the score with more subtlety. Compare their accounts of the long G major second subject in the first movement: Bernstein relies on the creation of a mere generalised mood, but when Wigglesworth arrives at the Das Lied von der Erde chord (5’50”), it has the same air of unease as when Shostakovich reuses it at the end of the third movement of his Tenth Symphony, thanks to the care this conductor has taken over gradations of balance during the preceding four minutes of quiet music. In the central repetitive section, Bernstein portrays the belligerent, thuggish arrogance represented by this passage, but Wigglesworth’s approach is contrasting: he begins at a genuine ppp and his build-up is more refined. The muted brass are so distant at 10’36” that I suspect they were playing offstage; this eerie effect is reminiscent of the moment in Act 3 of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk where the brass instruments, playing quietly with (as in the Leningrad) repeated notes at the end of each phrase, depict the arrival of the police.

It would take too much space to discuss every interesting facet of the BIS version, but I hope that I have said enough to persuade Shostakovich enthusiasts to hear this remarkable disc for themselves. Wigglesworth provides his own sensitive booklet notes, their ‘revisionist’ post-Soviet tone complemented by the character of his performance, but I was puzzled as to why these notes imply that there is genuine optimism at the conclusion of the work, when my impression was that his performance of the finale sought consciously to emphasise the parallel with the last movement of the Fifth Symphony: once the initial fast tempo of the Seventh Symphony’s finale ceases, a grim procession takes over, handled superbly here, sleepwalking impersonally to the dazed ‘forced optimism’ of the conclusion (significantly avoiding any rit, even before the last chord, so as to avoid suggesting grandeur). Apart from the pitchless bass drum, the lowest note in this final chord is the octave below middle C: isn’t Shostakovich hinting symbolically at ‘forced optimism’ here, stripping away any element of genuine triumph by (literally) letting the bottom fall out of the texture? Such was my impression of Wigglesworth’s reading.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales is a strong contender in a field where one might have expected recordings by the St Petersburg (Leningrad) Philharmonic to show particular commitment. The reality is that Yuri Temirkanov’s BMG version with the St Petersburg orchestra is no match for Wigglesworth’s, whilst Vladimir Ashkenazy’s Decca version with the same orchestra is less rewarding than previous releases in his fine Shostakovich series (having recorded all of the symphonies except Nos.13 & 14, Decca tell me that they do not plan to complete the cycle; worse still, apart from Nos.7 & 11, all of Ashkenazy’s previous recordings of the symphonies are deleted). For me, Bernstein’s two-disc DG set and Wigglesworth’s new CD are the two most impressive recordings of the symphony; these interpretations are so different that it would not be an extravagance if you bought both versions for your collection. Bernstein’s performance is so imposing that it is difficult to evaluate objectively, as its monumental weight alone can bowl one over to such an extent as to prevent one from making balanced relative judgements about other recordings: if one can put such bias aside, one is likely to conclude that the unique insights of Mark Wigglesworth make his performance the greater artistic achievement: the work emerges here as the epic which it is whilst the spontaneity and sense of new discovery in this reading make it special.”
Raymond Clarke, Music-Web International, August 1997
“This is the first issue in a projected cycle of Shostakovich symphonies from this team. It is a highly auspicious start, with an excellent clear recording made in Brangwyn Hall, Swansea. The BBC National Orchestra plays it with immense virtuosity and tonal power.

The performance of the slow movement is not only technically very fine but is a moving interpretation by Wigglesworth, who also clearly defines the ambivalent nature of the finale, itself a superb example of Shostakovich’s compelling symphonic art. There is plenty of competition among Shostakovich cycles but this one will deserve serious consideration if it continues at this standard.”
Michael Kennedy, Sunday Telegraph, August 1997
“As for the performance, the biggest compliment I can give is to say that I felt I was hearing the work for the first time. I had not, until now, fully appreciated its emotional power or its musical conciseness. Some conductors allow it to sprawl. Wigglesworth doesn’t. Dazzlingly virtuosic in the war music, wonderfully poised and atmospheric in the long introspective stretches, this is playing of rare quality.”
Terry Williams, Classic CD, August 1997
“[Mark Wigglesworth’s] strengths – the way he puts aside sophistication to find the painful simplicity of pathos; his characterisation of unevolved stupidity and evil in the infamous march are the product of real engagement…His conception is compelling.”
Ian Macdonald, Classic CD, August 1997
“Wigglesworth paces the music well; he identifies not the first but the third movement as containing the symphony’s emotional climax…one feels that [he] has found the Leningrad’s heart.”
Raymond Tuttle, Soundscapes, October 1997
“Mark Wigglesworth has long been a champion of the cause of this symphony. In this reading, he again makes an excellent case for it…The slow movement is painfully bleak and chilling, but no less so is its rampantly loud, brash, ostensibly triumphant successor. For Wigglesworth, pianissimo means pianissimo, a sustained crescendo a sustained crescendo…With this disc Wigglesworth hauls his reputation one rung higher up the ladder.”
Stephen Pettit, The Sunday Times, June 1997
“This…promises much. You feel the alertness in the opening bars where Wigglesworth, the orchestra and the production team makes the gestures appropriately raw and grainy. The second subject shows off the particular sensitivity and high polish of the strings, not to mention the spectacular dynamic range of the recording…Wigglesworth clearly believes in every note.”
DSG, Gramophone Magazine, August 1997