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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Six Romances on Verses by English Poets, Op. 140 (1971) (Sung in English) [14:59]
Annie Laurie (trad. orch. Shostakovich) (Sung in English) [3:08]
Suite on Verses by Michelangelo Buonarroti, Op. 145a (1975) (Sung in Italian) [43:34]
Gerald Finley (bass-baritone)
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Sanderling
rec. 8-12 October 2013, Helsinki Music Centre, Helsinki. Romances and Annie Laurie recorded live
Sung texts and translations provided
ONDINE ODE 1235-2 [62:00]
 
Suite on Verses by Michelangelo Buonarroti, Op. 145a (1975) (Sung in Russian) [44:50]
Six Romances on Verses by English Poets, Op. 140 (1971) (Sung in Russian) [14:59]
October, Op. 132 (1967) [13:21]
Ildar Abdrazakov (bass)
BBC Philharmonic/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. 5-7 April 2005, Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester
Sung texts and translations provided
CHANDOS CHAN 10358 [72:49]
 
Suite on Verses by Michelangelo Buonarroti, Op. 145a (1975) (sung in Russian) [37:30]
Three Romances on Poems by Alexander Pushkin, Op. 46a (1936) (Sung in Russian) [6:19]
Six Romances on Words by Japanese Poets, Op. 21 (1932) (Sung in Russian) [19:13]
Anatoli Kotscherga (bass, op. 145a)
Anatoli Babykin (bass, op. 46a)
Wladimir Kasatchuk (tenor, op. 21)
Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra/Michail Jurowski
rec. 21-23 February 1996, Philharmonie, Cologne (Op. 145a); 17-19 June 1994, Studio Stalberger, WDR, Cologne (Op. 46a); 22-27 May 1995, Philharmonie, Cologne (Op. 21)
Sung texts and translations provided
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94649 [58:08]

Shostakovich’s near-final opus, the Suite on Verses by Michelangelo Buonarroti, really is a summation of everything that’s gone before. The verse titles point to a life distilled to its very essence, its vicissitudes – the marginalisation of a true artist in particular – all too familiar to the composer. Such a formidable cycle surely demands a conductor and soloist alive to Shostakovich’s predicaments and finely tuned to his distinctive sound-world. This is why the Gennady Rozhdestvensky recording with the legendary Russian bass Yevgeny Nesterenko – now available as part of a rather mixed box from Brilliant – remains something of a benchmark for this work.
 
Of the three recordings under scrutiny here, two have been reviewed on MWI before, the Chandos by John Phillips and the Brilliant – the latter in an earlier incarnation – by Nick Barnard. Both have soloists with solid credentials in this repertoire, whereas this is Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley’s very first Shostakovich recording. As for conductor Thomas Sanderling, whose late father Kurt had a close relationship with Shostakovich, there’s a little more to go on; that includes a CD of the Michelangelo songs made for Berlin Classics around twenty years ago. Not quite the pedigree this music requires, perhaps, but then Finley is such an engaging and intelligent songsmith that he must surely bring something new and interesting to these scores.
 
What sets the Ondine disc apart from its rivals here is that the Romances and the Scottish ballad Annie Laurie are all rendered in English, the Michelangelo verses in Italian; those on the Chandos and Brilliant issues are all sung in Russian. That may be a deal-breaker for some listeners, although for others – like me – it makes this new release even more intriguing.
 
The couplings on these CDs are varied, so let’s tackle the most substantial work first, the Op. 145a. Originally written for bass and piano in 1974 Shostakovich composed a version for bass and orchestra a year later. The Helsinki brass make a powerful and unsettling impact at the start of Truth, in which the poet rails against his patron and a world of mediocrity. Finley is comfortable across the range, and his relatively light voice is a fine counterpoint to Shostakovich’s dark orchestration. The varied demands of Morning suit him even better, and reminds us what an intuitive musician he is. Wonderfully even and lyrical, Finley characterises the texts very well indeed; but then as he’s a seasoned Schubertian – his recent Winterreise has met with considerable acclaim – I’d expect nothing less.
 
Love is sung with rare poise, and Finley’s diction doesn’t disappoint. Remarkably, the more I listened the more these sometimes impersonal lines seemed to divulge. That goes for the orchestral contribution as well; the Helsinki Philharmonic are in peak form and Sanderling paces the music with great care and a keen ear for the composer’s oft soul-piercing sonorities. The ache of Separation has seldom been so keenly felt, or the lover’s ‘cries, sighs and sobs’ so movingly voiced. In Wrath the music licks and snicks like a wealing whip, and Finley sings with a controlled yet terrifying fury. In texts that can so easily be over-emoted he always balances dramatic conviction with a lieder singer’s feel for line and phrase.
 
In Dante and To the Exile Finley shapes and shades his voice in the most unaffected way; not only that he’s firm and ardent as well, with no sign of pinch at the top or spread at the bottom. Even in the super-heated crucible of Creativity he can hold his own against the turbulent orchestra. Meanwhile Sanderling impresses with his well-chosen tempi, not to mention his flair for both the big moments and the small. The Ondine engineers have done a sterling job too – the bass-drum thwacks and angry shimmer of tam-tam are especially well caught – although the timps seem a little murky at the outset.
 
Soloist, conductor and orchestra really are as one in Night which, as Hopkins would have it, has a palpable presence – a feelable fell – that I’ve not encountered here before. This is collective music-making of the highest order, and one senses something very special is unfolding before the microphones. Mortality, which harks back to the opening cry of Truth, must have had resonances for the composer, well aware of the grave heart condition that would soon kill him. Finley is dark but never lugubrious or life-denying, and he infuses the score with a degree of calm that’s deeply moving. What a well of vocal resources he has to draw on, and how masterfully he uses them.
 
By now it should be clear we are in the presence of something quite extraordinary, a confluence of talents that releases a flood of unforgettable music. Just sample the gentle accompaniment of Immortality, which has a timbral acuity that one associates more with a live event than a recording. Finley ventures far and wide, supremely confident about the way this music should go; such a deep sense of ‘connection’ is rare, so it must be cherished where it’s found. Indeed, one can only hope that the partnership between Sanderling, Finley and the Helsinki orchestra won’t end here.
 
The collaboration between Chandos, Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic is also a fruitful one, and I’m pleased to report there’s nothing in this programme to change that. Noseda seldom disappoints – his Casella recordings are particularly good – and his Russian-born bass Ildar Abdrazakov has a burgeoning career in both opera and song. Seconds into Truth and the soloist’s distinctive Russian timbre and a native’s ease with the language brings to mind the great Nesterenko. He also has that ingrained vibrato, although it’s more idiomatic than it’s intrusive; if anything it’s an instantly recognisable, very authentic sound that complements the rich, unmistakeable sonorities that Noseda coaxes from his players.
 
Morning is meltingly played and sung; indeed, that and Love are rendered with an austere beauty that even Sanderling and Finley can’t quite match. Also, Abdrazakov’s delivery is much closer to declamation than Finley’s fine-spun lyricism, an effect emphasised by the former’s hard Russian consonants; that said, Abdrazakov’s blend of strength and pliancy never fails to please. There are many ways to sing this music, and most have their virtues. The Russian is at his communicative best in Separation, although Finley is more secure in the sustained lines. Wrath doesn’t sound quite as visceral as it does with Sanderling and Finley – the Chandos balance is probably the more natural and discreet of the two – although Abdrazakov has the weight that Finley doesn’t; there’s not much in it though, for both soloists imbue these texts with a forward moving, keenly focused narrative.
 
Later I did began to long for Finley’s more plangent style – those open Italian vowels are so addictive – and the finesse with which he tapers his phrases. No qualms about the BBC Phil, for they play with a consistent clarity and body of sound that’s beyond reproach. The caged shriek and thump of Creativity is superbly projected and those Mahlerian whoops are nicely done. I suppose if one had to distinguish between these two conductors Sanderling reacts more to the moment, while Noseda has a feel for the overarching structure that’s almost symphonic in its proportions and coherence.
 
The final three songs – Night, Mortality and Immortality – make a haunting triptych that finds both conductor and soloist at their expressive peak. At times like this one is reminded what a deep-delving score this is, driven as it is by the composer’s unerring dramatic instincts. Railing, resigned and, ultimately, accepting this music is that of a soul bared so completely, so honestly, that it’s impossible not to be shaken by what it conveys and how it does so. Indeed, if it were possible my admiration for Noseda and the BBC Phil has increased several-fold; kudos also to the Chandos team for a beautifully judged recording.
 
Which brings us to Jurowski and Kotscherga. I’ve not heard the Capriccio disc from which this reissue is derived, but it strikes me as a fair performance and recording. The soloist is a little plaintive for my taste – he falls somewhere between Abdrazakov and Finley in his distribution of weight and colour – and he doesn’t dig as deeply as his rivals. Still he’s fresh and ardent in Morning, and while the Cologne players aren’t as polished as the others here they aren’t uncouth either. Jurowski is a little too cautious at times – dynamic contrasts aren’t so stark – and for all its solidity and sense of purpose this performance doesn’t inflame the emotions in the way that Sanderling’s and Noseda’s do.
 
Despite Jurowski’s comparative lack of drama this remains a solid, middle-of-the-road reading; trouble is, that isn’t quite enough in a score of such intensity and import, and there are just too many instances where coherence and interest are lost. Wrath isn’t the violent outburst it usually is, but then there’s no shortage of excitement in Creativity – listen to the terrific tam-tam and bells – or in the skin-crawling brass that announce Mortality. In between Kotscherga manages the high-lying passages of Night without crooning and the lower ones with telling inwardness. Only in Immortality does he seem a tad bluff, although the clear, pointed orchestral playing makes up for that.
 
Before we move on to the fillers let’s look the ledger so far. Off the balance sheet as it were are Rozhdestvensky and Nesterenko, who remain as indispensable in this work as Kondrashin does in the symphonies; not the only versions to have, certainly, but unique in that they remind us of an earlier, very earthy style of performance. We move on, and of the three Michelangelo recordings reviewed here Finley’s is the freshest, most illuminating account of recent years. Close behind is Abdrazakov, with Kotscherga a distant third.
 
On to the fillers and the Op. 21 and 46a Romances on the Brilliant disc are sung by the workmanlike bass Anatoli Babykin and the bright and somewhat unvarying tenor Wladimir Kasatchuk. As before, Jurowski is a steady but unadventurous accompanist, and in this modern company the mid-1990s sound seems shallow and fatiguing at times.
 
Finley and Abdrazakov both give engaging and thoughtful performances of the Op. 140, an orchestration of the war-time Op. 62 for bass and piano. That said, returning to Finley after listening to the two Russians I was grateful for his soft-edged delivery, which fits so well with the tenderness and fatherly affection of To his Sonne. Finley comes close to a snarl in Macpherson’s Farewell, but he makes amends with a delightfully articulated rendition of Jenny and a suitably sombre account of Shakespeare’s Sonnet LXVI. His Grand Old Duke of York – rousingly played – is good fun too.
 
Abdrazakov is both dark and heartfelt in that Raleigh setting, while in Macpherson’s Farewell Noseda doesn’t forge as strong a link with the Thirteenth Symphony as Sanderling does. Also, Abdrazakov isn’t quite as pushed as Finley here, so his delivery is more polished. I enjoyed the warmth and affection he brings to Jenny, and the pensive nature of the Shakespeare song is well caught, even if it seems a trifle unsteady at times. The disc rounds off with a muscular performance of the tone poem October. It’s not a piece one hears often – it’s certainly not one of Shostakovich’s better works – but it gets a fine outing here.
 
The Chandos sound is well up to the standards of the house, with a good stereo spread, solid bass and crisp transients. The Ondine recording is pretty good too, especially in the climaxes, with plenty of low-level detail. Most important, perhaps, is how faithfully Finley’s voice is captured; really, it’s just fabulous. His rendition of the Scottish ballad Annie Laurie – which I last heard sung in delightfully accented English by the Red Army Ensemble – is quite charming.
 
If you must have these works in Russian Abdrazakov is a clear first choice; however, if you’re less fussy about the language issue and want to hear them delivered in a way that refreshes, renews and reveals go for Finley. In an ideal world you should have both.
 
Finley's DSCH debut is a winner; Abdrazakov isn’t far behind, with Kotscherga a distant third.
 
Dan Morgan
http://twitter.com/mahlerei

Previous review (Chandos): John Phillips
 


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