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Reviews: Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8 - Wigglesworth

Reviews: 5

Site review by Castor February 10, 2006
Performance:   Sonics:  
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Review by stvnharr October 23, 2005 (10 of 10 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
This new release by Mark Wigglesworth of his slowly continuing Bis Shostakovich project is most welcome. After the disappointment of the Rostropovich release, this was a most pleasant listen. The tempos here are much the same as Rosty’s, the first movement Adagio even being a full 2 minutes longer, but the overall timing is only a minute longer. The 3rd movement scherzo here is done really well, and creates a lot of energy to burst in to the 4th movement Largo. Most of the rest here I found to be quite similar to the Rostropovich recording. However, where the pace of Rostropovich’s sometimes seems to lag a little, here it never seems to although the tempo is still on the slow side.
The biggest difference between the two recordings is in the sound quality. The Bis recording team came up with real first class sound here. The dynamic range here is just as great as on the Lso release. But the loud crescendos are never ever just plain loud and so in your face as they are on the Lso release. The mics seem to be a little farther back from the orchestra and the sound is just about perfect. The strings are never harsh or shrill. The cor anglais solo in the 1st movement could not have been done any better. The tympani and drums sound properly at the rear of the orchestra, rather than the more up front sound of the Lso release.
Another thing I particularly enjoyed here is that Mark Wigglesworth wrote the notes in the booklet. I wish this were more common. I much more enjoy reading the words and thoughts of the conductor rather than someone else. Although I realize that this is just a small thing to most.
All in all, I found this to be a very good recording.

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Review by krisjan February 25, 2006 (5 of 9 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
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Review by jlaurson October 10, 2007 (3 of 3 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony: Wigglesworth vs. Gergiev

Gergiev’s recording of the 8th Symphony of Shostakovich (written in 1943) from almost ten years ago, although the oldest of the six recordings that make up his “War Symphony” cycle, has long been unavailable in the U.S. It was just re-issued on Philips as part of the set in which I got to hear it for the first time. This Tuesday, however, Philips is re-issuing the single disc for the U.S. market as well. I have mentioned it in passing while praising Bernstein’s DG recordings of Shostakovich, but with Mark Wigglesworth’s latest recording (live) of the 8th from his DSCH cycle-in-the-making for BIS coming across my desk, here is an opportunity to compare without necessarily revisiting the other recordings of that symphony which I took to in a recent review.

Wigglesworth is hardly the name you’d naturally associate with Shostakovich, but he’s made somewhat of a name for himself with performances of that composer’s symphonies over the last years, spending much time and effort with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales on turning his performances of Shostakovich into events. Symphonies 7 (BIS-CD-873), 5, 6, 10 (BIS-CD-973/74), and 14 (BIS-CD-1173) have been issued with the BBC NOW, and now follows BIS-SACD-1483 with a different orchestra, the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, not unlike the BBC NOW also a very distinguished second-tier orchestra of Europe.

There is much to admire in Wigglesworth (just listen to the very beginning with the symphony’s tenderly stretched phrases or the first movement’s well-shaped climax before the expertly navigated cor anglais solo), the playing is of a generally high level (more secure, at any rate, than most Russian orchestras – Gergiev’s Kirov excepted), and the sound quality is very good; surely better than the overrated and dryish LSO live recording from the Barbican with Rostropovich, which received the highest of praise in the English press. With a generally more hushed, gray, threatening color than the Philips sound, direct comparison has the BIS recording seem less natural at first… but only when that comparison is direct. The piercing quality of the squealing woodwinds comes through nicely without being muted. Apart from admirable (that horrible word in CD reviews), Wigglesworth is also very deliberate. Indeed, he might be deliberate to a fault. The excellent first movement, drawn out to a staggering 29 minutes, comes across as well thought out, bordering on self-conscious with its pauses, little delays, and long held notes.

Gergiev, now an accepted Shostakovich veteran, has his opening benefit from a muscular dive into the rise and fall of the notes in warm, only slightly distant but very rich sound. It is generally difficult to build up much momentum or make the music of that long, very long first movement enjoyable on its own account – but Gergiev manages a good amount of tension and ‘push and pull’; Wigglesworth, delicate suspense. The strings’ rhythmic pulse at 5'20" takes you along more swiftly than the Englishman’s. About halfway through the movement the first series of climaxes, preceded by (purposely?) 'on the edge' playing of his woodwinds is thrilling and unforgiving. Gergiev and the Kirov throw everything into those five minutes of run-up to the nasal English horn solo under which the shivering string tremolo reminds that not all is calm yet. At ~20'00" the sun comes up again, for a short time, when the “cor anglé” moves to a different mood over slowly surging strings.

The second movement (Allegretto) – as indeed all three inner movements – doesn’t profit as much from the deliberation as they do from a finely honed performance. Only so often can the Netherlands RPO be noticed to be playing at their very limit and beyond. While that is true for the Kirov also (and indeed most Russian orchestras that I’ve heard in Shostakovich), the latter (I described it in a review of Gergiev’s 4th Symphony as “that lingering of chaos just beneath the surface of cohesion”) is more an asset, the former a slight detriment. The wild- and wide-eyed dementia and cruelty of the (“hyper-individualist” – the slogan that Soviet authorities condemned this work with) Allegro non troppo (reminiscent of the 4th Symphony – whereas the first movement is a near-copy of the 5th Symphony) doesn’t come to life in the earnest and ambitious playing of the orchestra, finding itself a little on its heels for at least the first four minutes. The Largo is delicate – but it surely could be more ‘threatening before the storm’, no? The ironic waltz interlude of the concluding Allegretto is captured wonderfully and supported by a gently played, lovely violin solo. The end is, musically and performance-wise, like the beginning: slow, deliberate, beautiful.

Gergiev brings plenty punch and energy to the second movement, finishing a good minute earlier (5'56") than Wigglesworth (6'52"). Is that Gergiev making ‘windy-sounds’ at 6'00"ff in the quiet close of the fourth movement? It sounds appropriate in a way – although I am not sure if it is to everyone’s taste to have silent whistling going on. There, as in the finale, the performance is best in the white-hot moments while gentler passages slack more than Wigglesworth who seems more intent at any particular moment; assuring that nothing goes wrong, that everything be as he wants it. A happy medium might create the best results.

I feel about Wigglesworth’s performance like many critics (just not me) feel about Pollini’s recordings: Too much head, not enough guts and raw emotion, a bit aseptic. For everyone of those who apparently prefer that order in the piano œuvre (like me), there must be some who prefer it in Shostakovich, also (or instead). The BIS recording is for those, especially if they are SACD-capable audiophiles. Only the liner notes – lovingly written and brimming with enthusiasm – annoy a little: his uncritical accepting of Shostakovich’s alleged ideas of universal suffering for the 8th and even an explicit inclusion of the Soviet suffering from the pre-war years in that symphony makes him look like a naïf. He quotes Volkov’s Testimony as “his disputed but reliable memoirs” (my italics). Volkov’s Testimony is purely Volkov’s – not “his,” Shostakovich’s – and it is disputed precisely because it is not reliable. But that’s an aside that doesn’t make the performance sound worse. With Gergiev, I feel his strengths more obvious and am not so aware of the weaker parts… although that does not mean that Gergiev is perfect, because he is not. He just sweeps the weaker passages under the rug whereas Wigglesworth scrutinizes them. I’ve not yet heard a ‘perfect’ recording of this work (I probably prefer Jansons’ account by a small margin over the others I am familiar with), and perhaps the work is to blame more than the conductors. Neither of these two different accounts disappoint, though, and in SACD sound Wigglesworth is to be preferred over Rostropovich although I'd go with Kitajenko’s Gürzenich Orchestra (Cologne) on SACD (Capriccio) if it had to be that format.

Philips, 470 841-2 (4-9 set) & BIS-SACD-1483

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Review by Fredrikmo January 16, 2008 (1 of 1 found this review helpful)
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This performance IS a disappointment. Wigglesworth writes some fine liner notes with much insight as to the nature of the symphony and this raised my anticipation. Unfortunately, the playing is too slow. Also, it's too romantic. It's a Shostakovich 8 gone to Hollywood, if I may exaggerate; meaning it is rather melodramatic and tearful. Tears have an important place in this symphony, to be certain, but there's not enough angst and fear, I'm afraid; and those emotions are even more important.

The sonics, however, I find absolutely wonderful. You will, for example, be able to single out individual bow draws from the string sections, and this is recorded without any ugly kind of spot-miking; and the concert hall sounds beautiful, too.

This is my favourite Shostakovich symphony, also one of my all-time favourite symphonies. Viewing it from that stand-point, any critique may be formed too much by subjective preferences, personal musical history, et cetera. I'm happy to recommend Bernard Haitink instead.

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