DSCH 8th: 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 seems available on Amazon.com – but I have so far failed to find it in any stores. Although the oldest of the six recordings that make up his “War Symphony” cycle just issued on Philips, I had not heard it until getting said set. I have mentioned it in passing while praising the 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 composers’ symphonies over the last years, spending much time an 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, now follows BIS-SACD-1483 with a different orchestra, the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, not unlike the BBC NOW also a very distinguished second tear orchestral of Europe.

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D. Shostakovich, Symphony No.8, M.Wigglesworth/ NRPO
There is much to admire in Wigglesworth (the very beginning of the symphony’s tenderly stretched phrases or the first movement’s well shaped climax before the 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. 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 woodwinds squealing comes through nicely without being muted. Wigglesworth is also very deliberate. Indeed, deliberate to a fault. The excellent first movement, drawn out to a staggering 29 minutes, comes across as well thought-out bordering 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, long first movement enjoyable on its own account – but Gergiev manages a good amount of tension and ‘push and pull’ rather than Wigglesworth delicate suspense. The strings rhythmic pulse at 5:20 takes you along more swiftly than the Englishman’s. About half-way 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 from 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 live 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 the punch and energy to the second movement that is a good minute faster (5:56) than Wigglesworth’s (6:52). Is that Gergiev making ‘windy-sounds’ at 6:00ff in the quite 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 oevre (like me), there must be those who prefer it in Shostakovich, also. 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 and even an explicit inclusion of the Soviet suffering from the pre-war years 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, 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) but the individual discs are not available alone yet, anyway, and present as such no direct competition.

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