Shostakovich Symphony No. 4
The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
“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 The symphony was withdrawn, the planned premiere abandoned.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