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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
The Symphonies
Netherlands Radio Choir
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Mark Wigglesworth
rec. various venues, 1996-2010
Reviewed as a 24-bit stereo download from
Pdf booklet includes sung texts and translations
BIS BIS-SACD 2593 [10 SACDs: 12:10:04]

Fourteen years in the making, Mark Wigglesworth’s Shostakovich cycle finally gets the ‘big box’ treatment. Not only that, the Red Book CDs – containing Symphonies 5, 6, 7, 10 and 14 – have been remastered as SACDs, with multi-channel options added. I’ve heard all the individual releases, and reviewed a few, my initial impressions almost entirely positive. This conductor’s thoughtful, meticulously prepared performances invite listeners to recalibrate their response to these scores, and while that isn’t always a good thing, the strategy works well here. Factor in first-class playing and sound, and this set begins to look very appealing indeed.

Of the established intégrales, those of Kirill Kondrashin and his Russian forces (Melodiya), Bernard Haitink and the LPO/Concertgebouw (Decca), Rudolf Barshai and the WDR Sinfonieorchester (Brilliant Classics) and Dmitri Kitaienko and the Gürzenich Orchester Köln (Capriccio) are self-recommending. Much less attractive is Msitslav Rostropovich’s multi-orchestra one, which, despite some strong performances, strikes me as very uneven (Warner Classics). Then there’s Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (Naxos). It’s certainly well played, but the virtues of this much-vaunted cycle continue to elude me. (I’ve yet to hear the new set from Alexander Sladkovsky and the Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra, but, if Gregor Tassie’s review is anything to go by, it should be worth a punt.) As for Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony, their as-yet-incomplete series looks very promising (Deutsche Grammophon).

Disc 1 of Wigglesworth’s traversal features Symphonies 1-3, the original release of which I reviewed in 2012. Recorded with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and Netherlands Radio Choir in 2006 (No 1) and 2010 (Nos 2 and 3), these performances are typical of this conductor’s precise yet thoroughly musical approach to this repertoire. He’s not as vigorous or volatile in the First as Kondrashin or Barshai; instead, there’s a quiet rigour to his reading that shows just how accomplished Shostakovich’s graduation piece really is. And what a strong narrative Wigglesworth forges here, the performance unerringly shaped and projected. In all three works, the orchestral playing is disciplined yet characterful, the singing in No 2 suitably incisive. The spacious, highly detailed recording is rather good, too. True, those big, celebratory crowd-pleasers are eminently forgettable, yet it’s a measure of this conductor’s commitment that he seems to devote as much care and attention to them as he does to the later, greater symphonies.

The second disc is devoted to Symphony No 4. As you’ll see, I was very complimentary in my review of the original release. If anything, I’m even more impressed now than I was then. For instance, it burns with a much higher, more intense flame than I first thought. I’m also reminded just how taut and muscular Wigglesworth is here, how strong and purposeful. And where some conductors seem a tad erratic and overwrought at times, this one cultivates an air of implacable tension that few rivals can match, let alone exceed. Perhaps even more remarkable is Wigglesworth’s vice-like grip on the music - shades of the great Yevgeny Mravinsky - although he never seems inflexible or autocratic. The trenchant playing of this Dutch band, and a weighty, forensic and utterly fearless recording contribute, in no small measure, to the impact of this staggering performance. Indeed, if you could own just one version of the Fourth, this must be it. And if you can stretch to a few more, do try Daniel Raiskin’s 2009 recording with the Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie and Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Mainz (C-Avi) or Nelsons’ 2018 one with the BSO (DG).

Disc 3 pairs Symphonies 5 and 6, recorded with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in 1996 and 1997 respectively. Given that these performances were included in the very first instalment of this series, it would be surprising if they challenged the best in the catalogue. And so it proves, at least where the Fifth is concerned. It’s an odd, rather indecisive performance that suggests Wigglesworth knows where he wants to go, but isn’t entirely sure how to get there. Also, the recording is prone to fierceness in the tuttis, something I don’t recall hearing on the original CD. That (in)famous finale is questionable too, but then it tends to come in all shapes and sizes anyway. For instance, Leonard Bernstein’s live Tokyo performance is horribly overblown at the close (CBS-Sony). My current go-to versions of the piece are Nelsons’ (DG) and, towering above them all, Kurt Sanderling’s, recorded with the Berliner Symphoniker in 1982 (Berlin Classics). Wigglesworth is more assured in the Sixth, which is firmly and persuasively executed. Even his players seem more at ease. Perhaps more important, the conductor evinces many of the sterling qualities one associates with his later performances. Also, the sound is every bit as good as I remembered it. In short, this is a very competitive version and well worth getting to know.

Wigglesworth does even better with Symphony No 7, ‘Leningrad’, recorded with the same forces the year before (Disc 4). It’s a confident, cannily constructed performance, the extended Boléro-like section in the first movement especially well done. As expected, Wigglesworth never overplays his hand, and that’s another defining characteristic of his cycle as a whole. (This is how not to play the piece.) I’d quite forgotten what a superbly controlled reading this is, and how passionately the orchestra responds to the conductor’s every demand. In particular, I was reminded of how Wigglesworth builds the piece, brick by brick; in turn, this serves to reveal the composer’s extraordinary craft. As for the recording, it has immense punch and power, notably in those percussion-drenched climaxes; that said, it also captures soft passages and fine detail with ease. (Pretty impressive, even by the stellar standards of the house.) But it’s the liberating close that really takes my breath away, especially when it’s this well prepared for and so joyfully presented. Yes, there have been a number of fine Sevenths in recent years - Paavo Järvi’s remarkably revealing reappraisal, recorded with the Russian National Orchestra in 2014, springs to mind (Pentatone) – but, a quarter-century on, this BIS version is still one of the best in the catalogue.

Now, if you’ve had doubts about Wigglesworth’s place in the pantheon of great Shostakovich conductors - even after that Fourth and Sixth - then his masterly account of Symphony No. 8 should dispel them for ever (Disc 5). Made with the Netherlands Radio PO in 2004, it’s the most penetrating performance of the piece since Yevgeny Mravinsky’s legendary Leningrad Phil one, recorded in 1982 and reissued – at the correct pitch – by Musical Concepts/Alto. But while the Russian’s reading is unforgettably febrile - that transported trumpet playing in the second movement beggars belief – it’s the Brit who explores the symphony in the most minute and astonishing detail. Happily, that’s no bar to overall shape and thrust, the Dutch players at their vital and virtuosic best. And, once again, the engineering impresses at every turn, its unforced weight and amplitude a perfect fit for this magnificent performance.

Disc 6 couples Symphonies 9 and 14, the first recorded with the NRPO in 2004, the second with the BBC NOW in 1999. As with his First, Haitink’s lively LPO Ninth has always been a favourite of mine. I say ‘always’, but these days I prefer Barshai’s skittish, rather quirky take on the piece. Wigglesworth’s version – crisply articulated, but not without character – falls somewhere in between these two. He exudes the quiet confidence of a man very much at home in this rep; and while his grip on the performance is total, suppleness and spontaneity are never at risk. Indeed, hearing this version again – after a long break – has reminded me what a good ‘un it is. Excellent playing and sound, too. Alas, I didn’t warm to Wigglesworth’s Fourteenth on first hearing, and that’s still the case now. It seems a curiously detached affair, which may have something to do with the change of venue, from Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, to St George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol. At least Joan Rodgers and Sir John Tomlinson are pretty decent soloists; besides, they are nicely woven into the orchestral tapestry. (Very different from the forwardly placed Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Julia Varady in the rather bright Haitink recording.) Barshai’s soloists, Alla Simoni and Vladimir Vaneev, sound far more ‘authentic’, and, as a performance, this gets much closer to the bleak heart of this profoundly unsettling score.

On to Disc 7, which finds Wigglesworth back on form with Symphony No. 10, recorded with his BBC band in 1997. As usual, he has the measure of the piece, acutely aware of its nodal points and compelling sense of purpose. It helps that the recording is so immersive, with no sign of stress in the tuttis. The playing is inspired, too, the second movement remarkably hard-hitting, while the opening section of the third shows conductor and orchestra at their easeful and eloquent best. Goodness, I don’t remember the performance being this good, or its finale being punched home with such strength and certainty. In fact, I’d now rank this alongside Yevgeny Svetlanov’s famous reading. That was recorded at the BBC Proms on 21 August 1968, just hours after tanks from the Warsaw Pact rolled into Czechoslovakia. It was a tense night in the Albert Hall, not least because Prommers gave the musicians quite a hostile reception, only to be won over by the electrifying performance that followed (ICA Classics).

My original review of Symphony No. 11, ‘The Year 1905’ (Disc 8) was nothing short of a rave. Recorded with the NRPO in 2006 – a very productive period for this orchestra – it sees Wigglesworth at his taut and commanding best, the narrative never allowed to flag or falter. Not only that, I’ve become much more aware of the conductor’s ability to bring out the songs, tunes and other themes that hold the symphony together. (That applies to their return, too.) It’s subtly done, but then that’s all part of Wigglesworth’s modus operandi. I’ve always maintained this is a much more accomplished score than its detractors would have us believe, and the many insights and telling touches in this performance surely confirm that. It builds to a quite splendid finale. As ever, the NRPO’s playing is beyond reproach. As for the sound, I’d say this is the best-engineered item in the box. All of which makes this my preferred version of the work - and by some margin, too.

Disc 9 couples Symphony No. 12, ‘The Year 1917’, and Symphony No. 15. Both are Hilversum productions, from 2005 and 2006 respectively. And while it would be idle to pretend the earlier piece is a great one, it would be entirely fair to say that, in the right hands, it amounts to rather more than the sum of its parts. Not surprisingly, Wigglesworth, who never seems awkward or embarrassed by Shostakovich’s lesser symphonies, makes a very good job of the Twelfth. It’s all in the best possible taste, of course, but that doesn’t preclude the possibility of some terrifically exciting sections. The big guns of ‘Aurora’, superbly caught, are a case in point. Even that impossibly protracted finale makes a strange kind of sense here, and that’s an achievement in itself.

Wigglesworth’s deeply satisfying account of the Fifteenth, which I reviewed in 2014, marked the end of this important cycle. The stature of this performance seems to have grown in the intervening years, the conductor’s response to this austere, deeply affecting score a perfect distillation of his many strengths and skills. The Dutch players dig deep, every seam of this remarkable work exposed. And it goes without saying that BIS’s highly detailed recording is a key factor in this extraordinary excavation. This remains a very special performance, although, without wishing to detract from Wigglesworth’s success here, I must also commend Kurt Sanderling’s even finer Fifteenth; that was recorded live with the Berliner Philharmoniker in March 1999 and released on the orchestra’s own label. (Not to be confused with his earlier Berlin Classics version, recorded with the Berliner Symphoniker.) It’s mandatory listening for devotees of composer and conductor alike.

Reviewing this set has served to deepen my respect and admiration for Mark Wigglesworth. That said, his account of Symphony No. 13, ‘Babi Yar’, on Disc 10, didn’t appeal to me on its first release. It still doesn’t. I’ve no issues with the Netherlands Radio Choir, whose singing is at once incisive and idiomatic. However, the soloist, Jan-Hendrik Rootering, is frankly underpowered, and it really shows in more taxing passages. I much prefer André Previn’s Dimiter Petkov (Warner Classic Masters), Haitink’s Markus Rintzler, and Kirill Karabits’s Oleg Tsibulko (Pentatone). Not forgetting, of course, Kondrashin’s Vitaly Gromadsky, whose emotive, old-school delivery brings a deep chill to Yevtushenko’s darker texts. Interestingly, Karabits’s ‘Babi Yar’, which I described as ‘thoughtful [and] quietly compelling’, is just the kind of performance I’d have expected to find in this box. Ultimately, though, I feel the chemistry between Wigglesworth and his Dutch forces just isn’t there in this recording, and that’s a real shame. Also, the sound here isn’t quite as good as it is elsewhere in this series. On the plus side, twelve out of fifteen is still a damn good score.

For the most part, these are powerful and illuminating performances, very well played and recorded; indeed, they confirm Mark Wigglesworth as one of the finest Shostakovich interpreters of our time.

Dan Morgan

Disc 1 [81:13]
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
rec. 2006 (No 1) & 2010 (Nos 2 & 3), Music Centre for Dutch Radio & Television, Hilversum, the Netherlands

Disc 2 [66:44]
Symphony No 4 in C minor, Op 43 (1935-1936)
rec. 2005, Music Centre for Dutch Radio & Television

Disc 3 [83:10]
Symphony No 5 in D minor, Op 47 (1937) [51:45]
Symphony No 6 in B minor, Op 54 (1939) [30:29]
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
rec. 1996 (No 5) and 1997 (No 6), Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, Wales

Disc 4 [79:20]
Symphony No 7 in C major, Op 60, ‘Leningrad’ (1941)
rec. 1996, Brangwyn Hall

Disc 5 [69:54]
Symphony No 8 in C minor, Op 65 (1943)
rec. 2004, Music Centre for Dutch Radio & Television

Disc 6 [82:10]
Symphony No 9 in E-flat major, Op 70 (1945) [24:44]
Symphony No 14, Op 135 (1969) [56:34]
Joan Rodgers (soprano)
Sir John Tomlinson (bass)
NRPO (No 9), BBC NOW (No. 14)
rec. 2004, Music Centre for Dutch Radio & Television (No 9) and 1999, St George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol, England (No 14)

Disc 7 [56:44]
Symphony No 10 in E minor, Op 93 (1953)
rec. 1997, Brangwyn Hall

Disc 8 [63:41]
Symphony No 11, Op 103, ‘The Year 1905’ (1957)
rec, 2006, Music Centre for Dutch Radio & Television

Disc 9 [84:46]
Symphony No 12 in D minor, Op 112, ‘The Year 1917’ (1961) [37:38]
Symphony No 15 in A major, Op 141 (1971) [46:16]
rec. 2005 (No 12) and 2006 (No 15), Music Centre for Dutch Radio & Television

Disc 10 [62:22]
Symphony No 13 in B-flat minor, Op 113, ‘Babi Yar’ (1962)
Jan-Hendrik Rootering (bass)
Netherlands Radio Choir
rec. 2005, Music Centre for Dutch Radio & Television

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