Russian Romances
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
From Jewish Folk Poetry Op.791 (1948) [23:03]
Suite on verses by Michelangelo Buonarroti Op.145a2 (1975) [37:30]
3 Romances on Poems by Alexander Pushkin Op.46a3 (1936) [6:19]
6 Poems by Marina Tsvetayeva Op.143a4 (1973) [18:39]
6 Romances on verses by English Poets Op.62/1405 (1971) [14:50]
6 Romances on words by Japanese Poets Op.216 (1932) [13:19]
Nina Fomina1 (soprano); Tamara Sinjawskaja1,4 (mezzo); Arcadi Mischenkin1 (tenor); Vladimir Kasatschuk6 (tenor); Anatoli Kotscherga2 (bass); Anatoli Babykin3 (bass); Stanislav Sulejmanow5 (bass)
Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra/Michail Jurowski
rec. Studio Stalberger WDR Cologne Germany 17-19 June 1994, 3,4,5 Philharmonie Cologne, Germany 22-27 May 1995, 1,6 21-23 February 1996, 2
CAPRICCIO C5095 [60:33 + 53:07]

There is a compelling argument that identifies three strands of Shostakovich's compositions as being his most personal and revelatory. Two of these "panels" of works are well known and long acknowledged. The public face of the fifteen symphonies crosses an enormous emotional range from the casual brilliance of the student first to the death-haunted landscape of the oblique fifteenth. Then there are the remarkable fifteen string quartets perceived as the private face and the medium of choice when he needed to exorcise the demons he was pursued by for most of mature creative life. That leaves the third part of this triptych - the song-cycles. Depending on how you categorise these there are at least six major orchestrated cycles that - as with the symphonies - span the bulk of Shostakovich's life. Oddly, given that each of these works contains music of extraordinary power and emotion they have never held any kind of grip on the recorded catalogue let alone the concert hall. That is evidenced by the fact that this re-release from Capriccio of a two disc set of the main six orchestrated cycles seems to be the only example in the current catalogue. The same works (plus the two Krilov Fables Op.4) were recorded for DG by Neeme Järvi and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra at around the same time as this set - 1994 - but using a more obviously 'stellar' group of singers including Sergei Leiferkus, Luba Organosova and Nathalie Stutzmann amongst others. Those two discs seem to be currently available as part of a 5-disc collection released nominally by Decca (475 7441) but at a price. The Suite and the Op.62/140 were coupled on a Chandos disc which I have not heard. It should not be assumed for one second that the presence of international names means that the DG/Decca version is automatically preferable regardless of price. Coming back to Järvi's Shostakovich discs in Gothenburg for DG they do strike one as lacking the red-blooded conviction that so marked out his incomplete Chandos Shostakovich symphony cycle. The playing is superb and indeed much of the singing is of extraordinary poise and beauty but on a like-for-like comparison I have found myself consistently more engaged by this Capriccio set. Conductor Michail Jurowski carved out a little niche for himself on this label conducting unusual film scores or opera suites and cantatas using regional German radio orchestras but this never translated into core repertoire. Conversely he has become something of a house conductor for CPO but in a diverse range of repertoire from Suppé to a Rangström symphony that is superb. I do not intend to do a like-for-like comparison - suffice to say Järvi is very fine and the singing is excellent however for music-making of a higher level of sustained inspiration I would turn to this current set.

Much is made of Shostakovich's choice of text. He was an extraordinarily well-read man and likewise was fully aware of the resonances and implications of specific texts. Hidden motifs and the 'meaning' of musical references are easy to deny or indeed ignore however a text is a text. Take for example the simply stunning From Jewish Folk poetry Op.79. As with many of these cycles it was originally conceived for piano accompaniment. Shostakovich's choice of superficially naive Jewish folk poems was no accident - how could it be? Context is everything - in the aftermath of World War II Stalin contrived the 'Doctor's Plot' which was presented as a scheme by the intelligentsia to undermine the revolution. By extension this group were further identified as being Jewish. At the same time Shostakovich was subjected to the infamous Zhdanov degree of 1948. At no time - except in the aftermath of the 'muddle instead of music' debacle following Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk - was the composer, and his family's life at greater risk. What does he do? He writes a song-cycle clearly and directly empathising with the plight of the Jews in the Soviet Union. You can choose to interpret this as either madness or extraordinary moral bravery. There was no expectation of these works being publicly performed - the premiere was a private performance given by Sviatoslav Richter and his wife soprano Nina Dorliak (plus two other singers) on the composer's forty-second birthday on 25 September 1948. Curiously, Shostakovich wrote the first eight (pessimistic) songs for this premiere but then added a further three by late October which extol the virtues of collective farming! This work was so obviously subversive that it could not be performed publicly during Stalin's lifetime and the orchestrated version presented here was not made until the early 1960s. None of this political point-making would matter as much were the music not as great as it is. Shostakovich deploys three soloists across the eleven songs and they range from the superficially simplistic [No.2 Fussy Mummy and Auntie] to miniature scenas of great power [No.6 The deserted father]. The latter is extremely powerful - a dialogue between a father and his daughter. Tenor Arkadi Mischenkin is quite brilliant as the father and his repeated tormented cries of "Tsirele, my daughter" are hauntingly heart-broken. Indeed here and throughout the entire set the standard of singing from this group of Russian singers is extremely high. Mischenkin sings the following song - No.7 A song of poverty and this encapsulates Shostakovich's genius at its twisted best. The verse might read "... a spider there [is] spinning trouble, He's sucking out all my joy leaving me just poverty" but Shostakovich sets it like some giddy patter song accompanied by a manic 'fiddler on the roof' accompaniment. This embodies his delight in writing music directly contrary to the emotional thrust of the text or overall context. For the listener it can be an unnerving experience but one that produces powerful juxtapositions between the message of the word and the implied message of the music. The final 'pessimistic' song No.8 Winter - is another superb evocation again deploying all three soloists. Another aspect of this performance is made clear - just how well the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra play and how well they have been recorded. To my ear the Capriccio engineers have found just about an ideal balance between the soloists and the orchestral detail. The sophistication of Shostakovich's scoring is an unending source of delight. By sophistication do not assume that it is thick or complex - far from it. Instead the telling use of low winds or a stroke on a deep tam-tam is so well gauged that it requires a recording as subtly fine as this one for those colours to register.

If the opening cycle is powerfully impressive the coupling on the first disc Suite on verses by Michelangelo Buonarroti Op.145a emerges as a true masterpiece. The opus number shows that it is a very late work - indeed from the last year of the composer's life. It comes immediately after the death-haunted String Quartet No.15 Op.144 and is only two shy of the very last work, the remarkable Viola Sonata Op.147. Fully aware of his own mortality, in this work he pours scorn on the Soviet State. It has a direct oracular quality that the earlier set did not dare attempt. This is one of three cycles here set for a bass soloist. Jurowski has the luxury of using three different singers each of whom is both idiomatic but more importantly a very fine interpreter. For this suite it is Anatoli Kotscherga and he is simply magnificent. The opening song is called Truth [track 12] - over the sparsest scoring - often no more than a pair of two simple lines - the soloist declaims "I had hoped that your greatness would raise me up, not as a false echo for people in high places, but as a sword of justice". By this time in his life clearly Shostakovich chose not to mince his words and more to the point he has the compositional skill to set these denunciations with a surgeon's skill - no note or gesture is wasted or superfluous. The emotional highpoint comes with the pair of songs that form the sixth and seventh of the cycle; Dante/To the exile. Here Shostakovich unleashes a more powerful instrumental group against which the bass rails; "and to your shame you increased the sufferings of your son, thus baseness takes revenge on perfection". No obfuscation or blurred meanings here - this is the composer going for the state's throat, plain and simple. How to write a movement to follow that? More slippery mis-direction and settings in stark contrast to content. So Immortality [track 21 - No.11] closes the cycle with a merrily chirpy piccolo whistling away banally while the singer says; "I am as though dead, but as a comfort to the world, with its thousands of souls, I live in the hearts of all loving people..". Some might find this disconnection between word and music frustrating. I honestly feel it is pure genius forcing you the listener to decide: does he mean what he says or what he sounds like he's saying. As elsewhere in the set the playing of the orchestra both as an instrumental group but especially as soloists is technically highly accomplished but also wonderfully expressive. Why this work is not more widely known escapes me for it is surely one of the most profound musical testaments by any great composer of any age.

The contents of the second disc do not - how could they? - equal that of the first but the performances are just as fine. Quite why Shostakovich turned to the bass voice for his most profound vocal utterances I have never heard a convincing explanation for. I do not believe that it is to do with favourite performers along the lines of Rostropovich inspiring the cello works. As well as the three cycles here there are important solo bass parts in the 13th and 14th Symphonies as well as The Execution of Stepan Razin. I wonder if it has more to do with the Russian musical heritage of such voices - Shostakovich's admiration for Mussorgsky is well-known and the eponymous Boris Godunov is just one such part. The Three Romances on poems by Alexander Pushkin Op.46a are the most 'public' songs here. Nominally composed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the poet's death these were written in the immediate potentially disastrous aftermath of the "muddle instead of music" article allegedly penned by Stalin himself. Now here's a little puzzle - the first poem's first verse "An artist-barbarian with his idle brush, blackens a picture painted by a genius" opens with the singer's melodic line copying the fanfare that opens the finale of the Symphony No.5 - which has the next opus number more to the point. This is followed by an innocent little string figure which is the twin of that just before the launch of the final few pages which are seen as mindless state-sponsored optimism or hollow victory. An accident or a figuration that happened to be on his mind at the time? I don't think so, Shostakovich was far too aware of subtext and implication ever to 'accidentally' quote anything. The bass here is Anatoli Babykin who has a deeper more resonant doleful sound than the visionary Kotscherga. The liner gives this as Op.46a which according to a list I have seen would imply the small orchestra version; the same list gives an alternative as Op.46b which is a setting for strings. From what I can hear that sounds like the instrumentation (plus a harp) used here. In any case this is a fine miniature but far from trivial cycle which again deserves greater dissemination. The third cycle featuring a bass is the Six romances on verses by English Poets Op.62/Op.140. The original for voice and piano was composed between the mighty 7th and 8th Symphonies so you might expect this anthology - the poets include Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh and three by Robert Burns - no doubt delighted to be included with other English poets were he alive to comment - to provide some emotional respite for the composer. Well, in part that is true but each setting was dedicated to someone from whom the war had separated him and by using Pasternak's translation of Shakespeare's 66th Sonnet "And art made tongue-tied by authority, And folly (doctor-like) controlling skill" he still seems congenitally forced to confront perceived injustice. Part of the fascination for the listener is to hear how the 1970 Shostakovich revisits his material from some twenty-five years earlier. The melodic material is less bleached and minimalist than other of the late works but the pared-back orchestration is another master-class in economy of gesture and texture. This is not a 'big' cycle in either physical or emotional scale in the sense that the pair on the first disc are but once again the range and depth of expression here is immensely involving. Stanislaw Sulejmanov is the third bass and he matches his compatriots for impressive sound and identification with the music. Rather different in terms of the emotional landscape it occupies is the early 6 Romances on words by Japanese Poets Op.21. This is about as near to a cycle of love songs as Shostakovich ever wrote. The opus number places it between the Symphony No.3 and The Age of Gold - so in terms of the composer's career relatively untroubled times. The orchestration is contemporaneous too but fascinatingly different from either of the mentioned works. Reading the lyrics they could loosely be termed as being about love [the second in the cycle Before Suicide rather confounds that theory] but an innocent ear listening to them would have little idea that traditional 'romance' was involved. These are settings for tenor and for the most part Shostakovich sets them cruelly high which adds to the sense of discomfort - perhaps pierced by love? The tenor here Vladimir Kasatschuk opts for taking the highest notes in falsetto which gives it a rather other-worldly sound. Järvi's tenor is Ilya Levinsky who takes everything in full voice. Of the cycles here this is the one that appeals to me least but again one can only marvel at the composer's total assurance in his handling of text and music. The same values apply to the final cycle - another very late work - the Six Poems of Marina Tsvetayeva Op.143a. Interestingly the scoring is richer than that for the Michelangelo cycle. Tsvetayeva had been an exile from the Soviet Union for 17 years before returning in 1939. Within two years she despaired of the new order she found and committed suicide. Her poems were not published until the 1960s. Although there is implicit criticism in these texts too the through-message of the poems is artistic creativity. This is another very impressive work superbly performed here by the mezzo-soprano Tamara Sinjawskaja. She has a lighter voice than some Slavic mezzos but again she uses it to powerfully sympathetic effect. Again the playing of the orchestra is excellent and the engineering near ideal in combining instrumental detail in an overall convincingly natural orchestral picture. I like the way too on a couple of occasions the orchestra overwhelms the singer - there is an element of theatricality about that that again suits the text very well.

Regardless of the relative lack of catalogue competition this is a set of some very fine music making indeed. The Michelangelo Suite I would place as one of this composer’s half-dozen finest works and thereby a piece that should be in the collection of every admirer of Shostakovich. Michail Jurowski impresses by his concentrated control as do the Cologne players who immerse themselves wholly in the demanding and often austere world of these song-cycles. Such is my admiration of the music-making and the engineering of this set that I have left my two caveats to last. One is minor and one - in the context of these works - is not. The minor one is the CD cover. Who at Capriccio in their right minds allowed the art department to take the words "Russian" and "romance" and visually translate with dumb literal ignorance that into the cover shot we have here. Some pouting model in furs in front of a horse - so laughably stupid it must go into the top ten list of inappropriate covers of all time. The major concern is the liner. The note is adequate but no more with a brief outline of the works but no real discussion of them. Also, there are no biographies of the singers. Far far worse is the fact that the texts printed are only in German and English. There is no Russian original or transliteration. Given Shostakovich's hyper-sensitive settings, not being able to follow every syllable is a major disappointment. Yes, most of the time you can have a pretty good idea of where they are in the setting but it is a bad oversight. Frustrating though this is I would still strongly urge collectors to hear this movingly confessional music in these very fine performances especially since the set is being sold at a twofer mid-price point.

Nick Barnard

I would strongly urge collectors to hear this movingly confessional music in these very fine performances.