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