Shostakovich Symphony No. 14
The BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Joan Rodgers, Soprano, & John Tomlinson, Bass
“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