Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 10 (1924-1925) [32:03]
Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 14 ‘To October’ (1927) [20:02]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 20 ‘The First of May’ (1929) [27:51]
Netherlands Radio Choir
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Mark Wigglesworth
rec. October 2006 (No. 1), October 2010 (Nos. 2 & 3), Music Centre for Dutch Radio & Television, Studio MCO5, Hilversum, The Netherlands
Pdf booklet with sung texts included (Cyrillic and English)
Formats: MP3, 16- & 24-bit lossless
Could this be a glimpse into the future of recorded music? BIS have begun to offer downloads of their new releases, giving collectors the chance to hear them without delay. For instance I was able to access and start reviewing Kalevi Aho’s three chamber symphonies and the Flor/Malaysian Philharmonic Dvořák Seventh within minutes of them appearing at eclassical.com. And although these downloads can be had as basic mp3s, BIS now routinely offer them in lossless 16- and 24-bit form as well. I tend to opt for the highest resolution, and that’s what I’ve done here. You can also download booklets and inlay cards.
Those who download music on a regular basis may wish to skip this preamble, but for those who are still sceptical I’d suggest that at the very least downloading music is a valuable adjunct to collecting the discs themselves. In some cases – Universal’s trial of high-res downloads via Linn’s website, for instance – vintage recordings are being restored to the catalogue in superbly remastered form. The downside is that one needs the right equipment to play these files – there are free media players available on the web for both PC and Mac – and perhaps a stand-alone DAC to crunch the numbers before your hi-fi takes over.
There’s no substitute for the physical product, though, and while I applaud BIS and others for offering us tantalising new choices I hope the silver disc stays with us for a good while yet. But in the spirit of this new venture – and mindful that many people now listen to music on their computers – I downloaded this new Shostakovich album within a few hours of its release and decided to review it on an iMac using the free Songbird media player feeding the signal into the very portable HRT Headstreamer, an asynchronous-USB DAC capable of handling files up to 96kHz. Plug in a decent pair of headphones and we’re ready to go.
Before we do, just a reminder about Mark Wigglesworth’s Shostakovich cycle so far. The earliest discs in the series were recorded with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, but more recently he’s switched to this Dutch radio orchestra, whose playing in Nos. 4, 8, 9, 11, 12 and 13 – all SACDs – has set new standards for these works. As for the interpretations, I’m happy to say Wigglesworth’s Shostakovich is deeply satisfying, shedding new light on works we think we know so well. How, I wondered, would he tackle the first three symphonies, the patriotic crowd-pleasers – Nos. 2 and 3 – often derided as Shostakovich’s weakest.
The First Symphony, written when the composer was just 18, has been fortunate on record. Apart from Kondrashin’s legendary cycle for Melodiya we have fine versions from the likes of Haitink, Barshai, Rostropovich and Sanderling. Haitink is a long-time favourite of mine, so I chose that as my comparative version. Certainly, he has the benefit of the LPO in terrific form, the first movement woodwind passages as perky as one could wish for. Rhythms are beautifully sprung and there’s a freshness and spontaneity to the playing that I’ve always admired.
Firing up the Wigglesworth I was immediately struck by the more equivocal nature of his reading; true, there’s that same alertness but it’s not quite so innocent, the bass-drum grumbles more of a portent than usual. The playing of the Dutch orchestra is full of unexpected colour and nuance, and the recording has enormous range and impact. There’s also a delicious edge to the percussion and a general spaciousness that makes Haitink sound a little close and bright by comparison. 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.
It’s swings and roundabouts in the remaining three movements, the scurrying LPO strings and mercurial piano part in the second most impressive. By contrast Wigglesworth is far more engaging, the quieter moments freighted with more feeling, the piano less immediate by no less infectious. There’s also an element of slapstick that Haitink underplays. Both are splendid in the bitter-sweet Lento, but 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. The fourth movement is no less eventful, Wigglesworth’s phrasing and pace designed to extract the most from this multi-layered finale.
I wouldn’t want to be without Haitink in the First, but Wigglesworth’s is by far the more intense and forensic reading; he’s helped in no small measure by a sophisticated and hugely satisfying recording that’s easily on a par with the other SACDs in the series. The final bars, with those muscular drum thwacks, are simply glorious. And glory – in part at least – is what the Second Symphony is about. A hymn to the 1917 Revolution it has the potential to be a banal piece, but Mark Elder’s BBCSO version – recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall in 1996 and subsequently issued as a freebie with the BBC Music Magazine – changed all that.
I listened to this and the Haitink version, the latter very well played – almost too well – but lacking the elemental joy and raw energy that Elder finds in the second – choral – segment. That said, the first part is most sensitively shaped and atmospherically recorded. Oddly, the deep rumble at the start of the work isn’t quite as arresting in Wigglesworth’s hands, but once again there’s an airiness to his reading 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 second section of Elder’s reading is hard to beat – it sounds pretty good too, even though it’s live – and here I must disqualify Haitink, whose singers are much too close and aggressive for my tastes. Wigglesworth’s siren is very well caught and the Dutch choir sing idiomatically and with a palpable sense of occasion. The joyful antiphons are crisp and clear and 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. Would I take his Second over Elder’s uniquely gripping one? Probably not, but I’d be loath to part with either.
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. In any event Haitink brings a bright, festive air to the piece that seems entirely apt, the LPO trumpets, trombones and percussion in scintillating form. He’s also more urgent and visceral here than he is in the Second, the recording weightier and more comfortable as well. Goodness, I’d quite forgotten how good this version is, but then one of the joys of reviewing is that it leads one to reappraise – and rediscover – forgotten recordings.
So how does Wigglesworth fare in this symphony? He’s certainly not as unbridled as Haitink, nor are his players as individually virtuosic, but he instructs where his rival entertains. Wigglesworth shades dynamics more finely and mixes his colour palette to create more subtle hues. But that’s not achieved at the expense of momentum, the music moving swiftly – and with plenty of animation – towards its choral finale. As always the recording impresses with its fidelity and range, making it hard to believe it’s a humble 44.1kHz original. The side and bass drums are played with great gusto, that darkly resonant tam-tam thrillingly caught. Ditto Wigglesworth’s transported chorus, which brings the symphony to a jaunty, spirited close. And goodness, how easy it is to hear the words, and how authentic they sound; Ilia Belianka, the language coach, must take a bow at this point.
If I were reviewing this album for Brian Wilson’s Download Roundup I’d have no hesitation in nominating it a Download of the Month. There’s just so much to engage with – and marvel at – in these performances that I must do the same here. Even in what might seem less than optimal reviewing conditions 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!
A triumph for all concerned.