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