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Shostakovich Song Cycles:  Sergei Leiferkus (bass baritone), Catherine Wyn Rogers (mezzo), Joan Rodgers (soprano), Ilya Levinsky (tenor), Semyon Skigin (piano) Members of the  Nash Ensemble : Ian Brown, (piano), Marianne Thorsen (violin), Paul Watkins (piano).  Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 14.10.2006 (AO)




Why was the Queen Elizabeth Hall half empty for this concert? It was the highlight of three days of Shostakovich rarities. Besides, in this centenary year, Shostakovich’s song cycles have been sorely neglected. They can’t be overlooked in any comprehensive overview of his work. It can’t have been Shostakovich saturation in the case of this material.  The Blok Romances and From Jewish Poetry, are too well known to have scared anyone off. If anything, the fact that they’ve been neglected this year is worrying.  The real rarities are the satirical songs, which should have got the cognoscenti out in droves, particularly as they’re so witty and relevant even outside the soviet context. 


Sergei Leiferkus is perhaps the best singer of Russian repertoire around today, as the large number of Russian speakers in the audience attested.  Deutsche Grammophon not long ago released a set of recordings of the satirical songs heard in this concert, where Leiferkus sings them with orchestra.  It’s very good indeed.  For a moment, when he walked on stage, he looked shaken at the half empty house: something he would not have expected in a city this size. 


It was London’s loss, for this was one of the high points of this busy centenary year.  Ironically, the small audience might have added impact to the satirical songs, which work best when they’re sung with defiance. Subversion loses its point when everyone agrees.  So, if anything, Leiferkus put more irony into this concert than he might have if the hall had been packed with ‘le tout Londres.’  Indeed, he was even more scathing alone on stage with piano, than in the recording. 


He started with Preface to the Complete Editions of my Works and a Brief Reflection apropos this Preface op 123. You don’t need to know the piece to guess its mock seriousness is a lark. It’s an account of how a composer has to struggle to get his works written and published and it goes “straight into oblivion – poof!”. Oh, the savagery when Leiferkus spat out the word “bukh !”  Make your own connections.

Then he launched into the Four verses of Captain Lebyadkin, from Dostoyevsky, Shostakovich’s last vocal work. To quote the CD booklet, its “morbid, warped quality, bordering on psychotic disorder” appeared alongside the elevated aloofness of the transcendent Viola Sonata. Leiferkus ‘s voice dragged bitterly on the lowest depths of his register.  The punchlines, spoken simply, were full of menace.  For example,“composed by an untutored man during an argument”.  Then he tells the tale of a cockroach falling into a glass of flykiller, then thrown down the drain.  Then there’s the story of the Radiant Personality, a revolutionary hero who’ll end the evils of the world, “Ekh!” translated as “Hey”, but was spat out by Leiferkus in much less polite terms.  You don’t need to understand a word of Russian to grasp the intensity of feeling, or its double edged meaning. 


After that, we really did need a reprieve.  The Seven Verses on poems of Alexander Blok are a star turn in the soprano repertoire, having been written for Vishnevskaya.  The cello part, too, is exquisite since it was a commission by Rostropovich.  Shostakovich himself played the piano part in private performance. After a slightly tense start, Joan Rodgers poured herself into the songs, letting her musical instincts guide her, emotionally engaging with the imagery.  When she sang the lines in We were together, that refer to the nostalgic memory of “the sounds of the violin” she sounded as finely nuanced as Thorsen’s violin.


Leiferkus returned with the lyrical Five Romances, “Songs of our days” to words of Dolmatovsky.  No Russian text was given.  Suddenly I realised that I had been following the Russian text only, during the singing, writing my notes on the Russian transliteration, so clear was the diction, and so clear the meaning. It was so much more fulfilling than following the English text.  So it is possible to absorb emotional content and musicality intuitively, using the translation as back up, not be-all.  Indeed, I really wanted to just follow the Russian in the beautiful “Day of Meeting”, and its poignant refrain “beloved, beloved”, sung by Leiferkus with such feeling that it was obvious what he meant.


Then, back to the songs based on pieces from Krokodil, the satirical underground magazine.  Couched in the terminology of official speak, its real impact was subversive.  The tales of these humble soviet era people are still relevant today. One song is barely a few lines long. A victim of a fight doesn’t tell the police, because “one beating was enough”.  We, too, may have “wonderful police” but that’s not always the case, everywhere.


Later Catherine Wyn-Rogers was magnificent in the songs From Jewish Folk Poetry.  These songs may seem like simple folk lullabies, but their deeper levels of meaning are horrific. The Lament for a dead child evokes the keening of mourners, and the Lullaby for a baby whose father has been sent to Siberia is outright chilling.  Wyn Rogers may look majestic, but she’s musically astute, her voice making what she sings totally convincing, painfully harrowing.  You know that “spi, lyu-lyu” refers to something horrible. Even the mock humour of the song where a girl leaves her father for the “enemy”, in the form of a policeman lover, Wyn Rogers leaves the listener with no doubt of the unspoken tragedy. 


Wyn-Rogers and Rodgers are often paired in performance because their voices balance so perfectly.  The multi part songs in this cycle were well executed.  Although Langridge was scheduled to sing the tenor part, Levinsky, called in at short notice, acquitted himself well.  He may not have Langridge’s experience, but his voice is fresher. I really enjoyed the choruses where the three voices blended together.  “Oy, oy, oy” they sang, celebrating the joy of a lowly cobbler’s wife when her sons become doctors and get out, presumably, from poverty.  Again, it’s universal, the dream of parents everywhere.


This was a fascinating concert, and those who didn’t attend missed out on some genuinely interesting music.


Anne Ozorio


The recording mentioned in this text is Deutsche Grammophon 00289 477 6111 (2006), with Sergei Leiferkus, The Russian Philharmonic Orchestra and Thomas Sanderling, conductor. 





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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)