Shostakovich Symphony No. 7
The BBC National Orchestra of Wales
“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