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12.1.06

Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony: Wigglesworth vs. Gergiev

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D. Shostakovich, Symphony No. 8, V. Gergiev / Kirov O.
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 not someone you’d naturally associate with Shostakovich, but then 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.

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D. Shostakovich, Symphony No. 8, M. Wigglesworth/ NRPO
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. I have not yet heard Kitajenko’s Gürzenich Orchestra (Cologne) cycle on SACD (Capriccio) or the individually available 8th which would be the direct competition and has gotten some very good press.

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

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Recently I read “The Time” review of Shostakovich Eight, Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra /Wigglesworth of November 26, 2005
“Once the least-loved of all of Shostakovich's symphonies for its apparent refusal to celebrate Russia's victory in the war, the tragic Eighth is now a favourite in the canon. Mark Wigglesworth and the leading Dutch broadcasting orchestra do nothing if not enhance this change.
They play the gripping central movement with the precision of an unstoppable machine, the trumpet zipping up its scales like a bullfight herald. The quote at the start of a theme from the Seventh Symphony was never so clearly made, and the ferocity of the first and fourth movements is positively bestial. Wigglesworth touches the major key transformation at the conclusion, however, with magical hands, and one wonders how the Russians could have dismissed it so. “
So I am asking myself: "What's up with those Russains? How could they dismiss it?

T.O.S. said...

Hopefully D. D. Shostakovich will get a lot of attention this year because of “Schostakovich centennial” (he was born on September 25, 1906 in St. Petersburg). He is “a perpetually fascinating subject of debate. Beyond the hoary question of whether he was a secret rebel against Stalin or a sellout who tried to ingratiate himself with the government, there is the music: now thorny, now shallow; now strikingly original, now rife with quotations from other composers; now spiky, now expressively melodramatic. It offers the ear and the mind a lot to chew on and repays repeated visits...”

jfl said...

DSCH is certainly the greatest symphonist of the 20th century - and in general one of the greatest composers of the last century altogether. The 8th is considered among the greatest of his symphonies by many whose opinions I cherish... I personally still have troubles finding through its long, long, long gloomy passages. I can deal much better with the repetitious fun-rides of the 7th; the eternal build-up of the 4th and the clang-clong-glory-be-damned of the 11th. Alas, I am afraid he won't get his due in a year that will stuff us with Mozart until we can't any more. DSCH will be our antidote!

Anonymous said...

So much dead space and truly mediocre symphonic tectonics in too many of the Shotakovich canon. Once the establishment labels a composer as amongst the greats, the machine never stops. Dmitri compsed one great symphony, start to finish, the 5th, and some others with great movoements e.g., 10th, 6th, 11th. But to call him "the greatest symphonist of the 20th century" is to engage in dreaded purple prose. For all their goose bump moments, the 8th and 4th, 7th are mereley note spinning exercises that a Sibelius or Nielsen etc. would have left on the cutting room floor. Dare I say that even a lune like Langaard left better works and Vaughan Williams and Rubbra and Sallinen and Holmboe et. al. are better practioners of the art. I find it takes a GREAT performance to hold most Shostakovich together: see Stokowski's 11th.

jfl said...

Whenever Sibelius comes to mind, calling DSCH the greatest Symphonist of the 20th Ct. does indeed seem... questionable. But while I often prefer Langaard to much of DSCH's symphonies (can't do much yet with 2, 3, 6, 8, 10, 14), I wouldn't necessarily rank the former over the latter. And heck: Quantity must count for something. (No... let me retract that... Myaskovsky just came to mind, and we wouldn't want that.)

cheers,

jfl

prowhistler said...

he's our Beethoven...