Six Romances to verses of W. Raleigh, R. Burns, and W. Shakespeare, Op. 62 (1942)
1. Sir Walter Raleigh to His Sonne (Raleigh, trans. B. Pasternak) [4.05]
2. O Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast (Burns, trans. S. Marshak) [2.36]
3. Macpherson’s Farewell (Burns, trans. S. Marshak) [2.16]
4. Jenny (Burns, trans. S. Marshak) [1.32]
5. Sonnet LXVI (Shakespeare, trans. B. Pasternak) [2.49]
6. The King’s Campaign - after the nursery rhyme The Grand Old Duke of York (trans. S. Marshak) [0.48]
Five Romances to words from the journal ‘Krokodil’, Op. 121 (1965)
1. First-hand Testimony [3.33]
2. A Hard Wish To Fulfill [1.13]
3. Caution [1.27]
4. Irinka and the Shepherd [1.21]
5. Excessive Enthusiasm [1.38]
Four Monologues to words by A. Pushkin, Op. 91 (1952)
1. Fragment [5.49]
2. What Does My Name Mean To You? [2.26]
3. In The Depth Of The Siberian Mines [3.00]
4. Parting [2.28]
Five Songs to lyrics by E. Dolmatovsky, Op. 98 (1954)
1. The Day Of Meeting [2.16]
2. The Day Of Love Declarations [2.14]
3. The Day Of Insults [3.26]
4. The Day Of Joy [2.05]
5. The Day Of Memories [2.16]
Four Poems of Captain Lebyadkin to words by F. Dostoevsky, Op. 146 (1974)
1. The Love of Captain Lebyadkin [4:12]
2. The Cockroach [3.45]
3. A Ball For The Benefit Of The Governesses [2.04]
4. Radiant Personality [2.16]
Shostakovich’s vocal writing surely reaches its apogee with the late Suite on Poems of Michelangelo Buonarroti (1974); that’s well represented on disc, but the earlier song cycles have not been so lucky. All the more reason to welcome this Northern Flowers issue, although DSCH fans will know these performances were released a few years by Delos. There the volumes are varied in content, which strikes me as more sensible than grouping these songs by voice type. While no-one can deny the richness and authority of Fyodr Kuznetsov’s bass, an hour of his dark, resonant voice – especially in some of Shostakovich’s bleaker settings – can be a little tiring.
First a word about these Northern Flowers releases. As I discovered in my review of Shostakovich’s theatre music the sound is perfectly acceptable but the track-listings and liner-notes are hopelessly inadequate; whatever the selling price of these discs – and these recordings are supposed to be part of an important project – this just isn’t good enough. In mitigation, English translations of the songs are provided, although some titles are not only unidiomatic, they’re also misleading. Die-hard DSCH fans probably won’t mind too much, but those unfamiliar with these pieces just might. Quibbles aside, this is intriguing repertoire, well worth exploring.
The wartime settings of texts by Raleigh, Burns and Shakespeare seem a world away from the fraught Seventh Symphony, especially in the gentle opening of Sir Walter Raleigh to His Sonne, written for the fourth birthday of the composer’s son Maxim. It’s not all fatherly affection though, with some quirky piano writing thrown in for good measure. As suggested in the liner-notes the folly embedded in the nursery tune The Grand Old Duke of York had deeper resonances for Shostakovich. Indeed, the vocal style and sentiment reminds me of the scathing ‘Humour’ from the Thirteenth Symphony – and that’s about as unambiguous as one gets in this composer’s oft-veiled œuvre.
Subversion certainly lies at the heart of his songs based on letters to the satirical magazine Krokodil. Cue mock seriousness, plodding tempi and what sounds like the jangle of tram bells in First-hand Testimony. Kuznetsov relishes the Blimpish outrage of one Issayev N.M., (retired) – it’s a diatribe against rudeness on public transport – without resorting to expressive overkill. And what to make of the solemn Dies irae of Caution, in which a patriotic citizen refuses to respond to a boor’s beating? Or the burbling banality of Irinka and the Shepherd? Shostakovich underlines – or perhaps undercuts – Excessive Enthusiasm with musical clichés. It’s nicely done, perhaps rather more wry than sardonic.
The four Pushkin monologues are altogether more serious in tone and more subtle in execution. Indeed, pianist Yuri Serov brings a Schubertian delicacy to Fragment, a haunting piece about anti-semitism, a subject the composer returned to time and again. It’s a gravely beautiful setting, Kuznetsov in commanding voice throughout. As for Serov, he brings out the sound of pealing bells very well indeed. Staying with Schubert, there’s a maid-of-the-mill-like mobility and intensity to the love song What Does My Name Mean To You? Kuznetsov is ardent without sounding squally, shading his lower registers most effectively; only in Pushkin’s polemic on the horrors of the Siberian mines does he verge on histrionics; that said, he sings with impressive weight and sensitivity, modulating to something much more lyrical in the delightful Parting.
All very different from the compact sentiment and style of the music Shostakovich wrote to poems by his friend, the poet Eduard Dolmatovsky. There’s ease and mastery to the writing here: in Serov’s hands The Day of Love Declarations flows effortlessly, Kuznetsov shadowing the tense piano figures in Day of Insults to dramatic effect. It’s a mark of Shostakovich’s skill that he alludes to – and assimilates – the music of others, yet makes it sound like his own. The filigreed, almost baroque, flourishes in Day of Memories and its firm, Russian rhythms are just such an instance.
The Soviets made Shostakovich suffer more than most for his art, so it’s no surprise that the corruption and excesses of Imperial Russia – as personified by the cruel drunk Captain Lebyadkin – appealed to his sense of outrage and despair. It’s a-swirl with malevolence and aggression; Kuznetsov certainly makes the most of his ungrateful part, the staccato piano writing of The Cockroach a grim but witty piece of creepy characterisation. As the composer’s last vocal work, it seems entirely appropriate that this cycle should contain music of such anger and asperity, both qualities powerfully realised here.
I still feel the Delos releases, with their varied programmes and roster of singers, is much more appealing than Northern Flowers’ unimaginative approach. That said, the Romances and Monologues are also grouped on a single CD from Sergei Leiferkus and Semyon Skigin (Koch-Schwann). I did find this review disc a tad unremitting, but then it’s probably best to dip in rather than listen to it all in one sitting. Still, it’s very accomplished – if not always revelatory – and will surely appeal to those looking beyond the familiar, oft-recorded symphonies.