Shostakovich: Symphony No. 14

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COMPOSERS: Shostakovich
LABELS: BIS
WORKS: Symphony No. 14
PERFORMER: Joan Rodgers (soprano), John Tomlinson (bass); BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Mark Wigglesworth
CATALOGUE NO: CD-1173
Few works stare into the abyss with such chilling candour as Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony. Yet listening to its brilliantly conceived sequence of vocal settings is by no means a depressing experience, particularly if the performance is delivered with conviction, sensitivity and an acute awareness of dramatic pacing.

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Such qualities are very much in evidence here. Utilising the widest possible dynamic range, from the almost inaudible disembodied ruminations on the ‘Dies irae’ motif that open ‘De profundis’ to the overpowering tom-toms at the close of ‘On the Watch’, Mark Wigglesworth delivers an exceptionally coherent interpretation supported by fine and idiomatic singing from both soloists. What is perhaps most impressive is the fact that Wigglesworth sustains the same level of tension whether in the highly charged operatic frenzy of ‘Loreley’ or the bleak loneliness of ‘The Death of the Poet’. Arguably the only miscalculation is the dynamic of the ghostly fugal interlude from ‘In the Santé Prison’, which in places barely crosses the threshold of audibility.

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Needless to say, Wigglesworth faces stiff competition, especially from Russian interpreters. In particular, Rostropovich’s 1973 recording, currently available only as part of Teldec’s boxed set of the complete symphonies, communicates an unrivalled level of ferocity in ‘Malagueña’ and vehemence in ‘The Zaporozhian Cossack’s Answer to the Sultan of Constantinople’, while Vishnevskaya sings the opening melodic lines of ‘The Suicide’ with an ineffable poignancy. Yet I find this new version just as compelling. The balance between the voices and the orchestra is much more natural, and there are many places in the score where Wigglesworth scores over his rival in terms of greater subtlety of nuance and lyrical expression. Although BIS might be reprimanded in certain quarters for a distinctly ungenerous playing time, it would be difficult to contemplate any appropriate coupling after the symphony’s shattering coda.