With Brilliant Classics you pays your money and you takes your choice. So, whilst the licensing of the original material is often very fine and musically satisfying it comes at the cost of minimalist packaging. Often that is not a problem, but here - fine liner-note from Malcolm MacDonald notwithstanding - the absence of any texts is a major hindrance. Shostakovich, even more in his songs than his quartets and symphonies, is a master of the elusive and allusive. As a listener you have to be so alert to the deeper meaning behind the notes or the words or even the motivation that chose the words even to begin to understand the hidden purpose behind these remarkable works. Reviewing a double set of the orchestral songs last year reawakened in me the realisation of just what an important part of the composer's oeuvre vocal music was. That set from Capriccio (C5095) was exceptionally fine - although also textless! - so I was particularly interested to hear some of the same music in its original piano accompaniment versions. Suffice to say, the performances here are absolutely superb. From the very first note bass Peter Gluboky sings you know you are in a master's hands. More than that about him I cannot tell you. Brilliant omit any biographical details and a quick web-trawl produces no more information. All I can tell you is that he has the ideal vocal instrument for this repertoire allied to a keen dramatic sense for the full gamut of emotions from implacable menace to sly irony. In this he is helped by the equally sensitive and alert playing of pianist Natalia Rassudova. Several of the cycles here are available in orchestral versions either by Shostakovich or Boris Tischenko. They work so brilliantly in that form that I wondered if I would miss the extra variegated colour the orchestra brings. In fact not at all - what the piano alone reinforces is the remarkable minimalism with which Shostakovich writes. Almost without exception these are songs with a message and the simple directness of the music is driven home even more powerfully without the diversion of the orchestra.
The Russian-sourced recording dates from 1994 and is in fact really very good. Rassudova's piano is not an instrument of the greatest tonal beauty. In the louder dynamics it hints at the clangourous. The opening of track 4 has a twanging sound that I actually find rather idiomatic but the recording itself feels very truthful so you feel this is actually how it sounded in the room. Certainly the full remarkable range of Gluboky's voice is caught to glorious effect and the balance between voice and piano, the voice fractionally left of centre the piano slightly more in the right channel is full and believable. Before listening to the disc I did wonder whether over seventy minutes of bass voice Soviet-inspired gloom might be somewhat overpowering. I should have had more faith in the composer and certainly with his music in the hands of such fine practitioners as here we get a compelling and indeed moving recital. The music is presented in chronological order covering nearly all of the last forty years of the composer's life. There are two sets of Pushkin settings. The opening of the first immediately sets the listener a puzzle. The text titled Rebirth
rails against state-sponsored barbarism and was written when Shostakovich was reeling from the denunciation of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
. Yet the music that presages this mini-manifesto is nothing less than a version of the music that heralds the 'triumphant' ending of his Symphony No.5 - the so-called "artist’s reply to just criticism". Since the Pushkin setting was as much for private consumption as anything else the musical reference must be heard as a ticking time-bomb of dissent in the midst of the forelock tugging. This interpretation does depend on whether you believe Shostakovich was a state-sponsored acolyte or a closet dissident - far more learned academics than I disagree on this subject. And that is not the only example of the meaning behind/below the text with which this disc is filled. Indeed every cycle if not song brings its own particular delights and pleasures. All of which are pointed up by Gluboky's remarkable voice. He can conjure the wonderfully cavernous sound of the great Russian basses - In the Fields in snow and rain
the second of the Six Romances on verses by British Poets Op.62 is a fine example. Yet at the same time he also possesses a baritone-like upper voice and agility which allows songs such as Irinka and the cowherd
from the Four verses by Captain Lebyadkin Op.146 to have a salon simplicity - which masks a deeper truth. He also makes use of a wide dynamic range - pushing the climaxes of some songs to operatically powerful climaxes. The fact that this works so well is due to the fact that the voice does not harden under that kind of pressure and that Rassudova proves to be an accompanist able and willing to follow wherever Gluboky leads - this is very compelling music-making.
The Six Romances are a highlight together with the first Pushkin set probably because both were written during especially trying times. In contrast the heavy almost mocking irony of the Five Romances on texts from 'Krokodil' Op.121 and Four verses by Captain Lebyadkin Op.146 come from the last decade (Op.121) and the very end of Shostakovich's life when his disillusionment could be more overt. Gluboky is absolutely right to play the implicit bitter comedy of these two late cycles dead straight. Often there is a music-hall quality to the music that harks back to the early pre-Mtsensk part of Shostakovich's career when he delighted in the juxtaposition of styles and expectations. Here the banality is a deliberate expressive device to underline the vacuousness of much of this state-sponsored propaganda. By the 1970s, as the Soviet Union's greatest living composer he was as much above state sanction as anyone could be so the dissent could become ever more overt. Checking the current catalogue there seem to be surprisingly few recitals let alone collections of Shostakovich's songs with piano accompaniment. There is a multi-volume cycle from Delos available at full price per disc and other odds and ends filling various compilations. But remarkably, for such important music by such an important and well-regarded composer, there seems to be nothing of a like-for-like nature. The nearest is on the label Northern Flowers performed by Fyodor Kuznetsov and Yuri Serov. Even if there had been multiple competition I would have recommended this very highly. The absence of texts is a major blow - all of the orchestrated sets from DG included the words but that is not much use to the first-time purchaser. Finding the texts on-line is fairly tricky too. Brilliant Classics still hovers around the bargain price point which I expect would be their defence for such an omission but it does strike me as the proverbial "ha'porth of tar" approach when every other aspect of the disc is so fine. My other query is, if Peter Gluboky was singing like this in 1994 why did we not hear more of him then and where is he now? It seems rather appropriate to end a marvellous Shostakovich disc enigmatically.
Shostakovich: master of the elusive and allusive.