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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 – 1975)
Suite on Words of Michelangelo Op. 145a (1974) [44:50]
Six Songs to Lyrics by English Poets, Opp. 62, 140 (1942/1971) [14:28]
October Symphonic Poem (1967) [13:21]
Ildar Abdrasakov (bass)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda.
rec. Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, 5-7 April 2005. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 10358 [72:49]

This excellent Chandos CD has been receiving accolades in the musical press. In one review it was described as being the best currently available of this repertoire. Whilst I wouldn’t disagree with this judgement, I went back to the old Melodiya vinyl LP of these songs, and to hear these is to enter into a totally different sound world. In this Shostakovich anniversary year, Melodiya has in its vaults more than a few such recordings which would make any fan of the composer dance with delight. The two song cycles were available a long time ago when Melodiya was distributed in this country by EMI on SLS 5078 (a double LP issue). If Melodiya were to re-issue these on CD, they would have winner on their hands.

However, this review is for the current issue and I am pleased to state that it is up to Chandos’s normal high standard of excellence from Studio 7, with the BBC Philharmonic attaining its usual standard. Noseda steers his band through the difficult writing with absolute skill and ability. I am more concerned with the bass soloist, (Ildar Abdrazakov), as he seems to be afflicted with the same problem which affects many of today’s soloists. When he is singing up to mezzo-forte, his voice is a wonderful instrument – colourful, and very pleasant to listen to. Above mezzo-forte however, his pitch control is very approximate and borders at times on nothing more than shouting. I know Shostakovich’s writing for his soloists in rarely easy, but to return to Yevgeny Nestorenko (the original soloist on Melodiya) one actually hears something much closer to what Shostakovich wrote.

In this late work, there is a violence to the orchestral parts which if played in the idiom, can be extremely impressive. Whilst the BBC Phil manages this difficult writing extremely well - as good a most of the competition on modern CD - there is absolutely no comparison with the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra under Maxim Shostakovich in the Michelangelo Songs and the Moscow Chamber Orchestra under Rudolf Barshai in the Songs to Lyrics by English Poets. There is a rawness of expression, not down to the recording, but in the playing, alongside which the BBC Phil sounds relatively soft-edged. A quality not in keeping with the subject matter of the lyrics.

Shostakovich wrote his Op.145 based upon the writings of Michelangelo. It consists of eleven contrasting and emotionally charged movements which range from dark lyricism to violent protest. The composer gave his own titles to each of the verses and it is not surprising that many of them had a great significance to him, given his very difficult existence within the constraints of the Soviet Union. It must be obvious from this description and to anyone who knows the composer’s style just what an emotional roller-coaster ride they are in for.

When we come to the Six Songs to Lyrics by English Poets, although the source material comes from a totally different area, the emotions are very similar. This song-cycle was originally Op. 62, and in this version written in 1942 was for bass soloist and piano. Both the emotional content and nature of the cycle cries out for more colour than the piano can produce and so the composer re-wrote the work in 1971 for bass soloist and small orchestra. The new work, now accorded Op. 140, was premiered in Moscow in 1973 with Yevgeny Nestorenko as the soloist. Once again, as good as Chandos’s soloist is, he cannot compete with the Melodiya issue. This is not to say that Nestorenko’s pitch control is perfect, but it is streets ahead of Abdrazakov.

The disc is completed by a Symphonic Poem "October", which seems a strange choice. I would have thought another song cycle might have been a better choice, but at least the current choice gives the BBC Philharmonic a chance to shine on their own. Apart from a competitive version by Nëeme Järvi on DG there is little competition, and so Noseda and his band has the field to itself. Given the excellence of the Chandos sonics, this is now the top recommendation for this symphonic poem.

So to sum up – an excellent release, but if Melodiya were to re-issue their original recordings with Yevgeny Nestorenko there would be no contest.

John Phillips

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