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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Kol Nidre
, Op 39 (1938) [14:11]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti, Op 145a (1975) [42:39]
Alberto Mizrahi (narrator)
Ildar Abdrazakov (bass)
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
rec. live, March 2012 (Schoenberg), June 2012
Original texts and English, French, German translations included
CSO RESOUND CSOR9011602 [56:50]

The Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti is one of Shostakovich’s very last works. Originally conceived as a cycle for bass voice with piano accompaniment and completed in July 1974, the composer later orchestrated the songs but did not live to hear them performed in that version. In the suite he sets eleven poems by Michelangelo (1475-1564); the songs were composed to mark the 400th anniversary of the birth of the great Renaissance artist. In a perceptive booklet note Phillip Huscher comments that ‘Shostakovich clearly identified with the way Michelangelo used poetry to explore themes that were too intimate to display in painting or sculpture.’ He also notes that the Soviet master’s settings ‘ended up as a highly personal testament to concerns these two men shared – love, morality, death and immortality …’

The songs require a singer of great sensitivity and one who is a commanding presence even when, as is often the case, Shostakovich requires him to sing quietly. It’s no accident, surely, that the first interpreter of these songs was the great Yevgeny Nestorenko. Fortunately, this performance benefits from just such a singer. I was impressed with Ildar Abdrazakov as the bass soloist in Muti’s 2009 Chicago recording of the Verdi Requiem (review). Here, in very different, often very private music, he impresses again. He receives superb support from Muti and the Chicago Symphony. A great deal of the scoring is spare and restrained and the Chicagoans here remind us that as well as the great power we know they can generate they are also capable of tremendous refinement.

At the start of the performance in ‘Truth’ Abdrazakov is commanding and his firmly focused clear voice makes a strong impression. In ‘Morning’, which comes next, the music demands that the soloist switches from the declamatory style needed for the opening song to delicate, light-toned singing. Abdrazakov is equal to the challenge. Later in the set the spare, intense music of ‘To the Exile’ is a prime example of Abdrazakov’s tremendous dynamic range. Here his soft singing is wonderfully focused. There are several other similar examples where I admired greatly the control that he exhibits in singing quietly while not ever sacrificing focus. On the other hand he’s just as convincing when the music demands a forceful, emphatic approach, as in ‘Wrath’.

Muti and the orchestra are just as fine. Muti etches in the accompaniment to ‘Morning’ with great finesse. The next song, ‘Love’ is most imaginatively scored by Shostakovich and the contributions from the xylophone and various woodwind soloists compel attention, as does the subtlety of the string playing. Later, in ‘Creativity’ the wind, brass and percussion are razor-sharp.

The final three songs are remarkable. First comes ‘Night’. Here the orchestral scoring is wonderfully evocative and the Chicagoans conjure up a marvellously hushed nocturnal ambience to complement Abdrazakov’s expertly controlled soft singing. He has a big voice and it’s no mean feat of technique to rein in his tone to produce such hushed, intense singing. Intensity of a very different kind is the order of the day in ‘Death’. As anyone who knows Shostakovich’s late works might expect, this song’s music is brooding and full of tension. It’s another example of the way in which death is such a preoccupation in the composer’s final years. Abdrazakov is utterly compelling here and the orchestra support him magnificently. On the surface the atmosphere lightens in the closing song, ‘Immortality’ – though one can never be sure with this master of musical ambiguity. The chattering woodwind almost have an air of innocent perkiness but passages of greater emotional import interject to bring us back to reality. The orchestra has the last word with a hushed and rather mysterious ending; Shostakovich remains inscrutably ambiguous.

It’s been a while – too long – since I heard this score but this magnificent performance reminded me what a fine work it is. This is a distinguished addition to the Shostakovich discography.

The coupling is rather unusual. Schoenberg wrote his setting of Kol Nidre at the invitation of the rabbi of the Fairfax Temple. The composer, by then resident in the USA, was increasingly alarmed by the course of events in Europe and set about the task with urgency, completing the composition in less than two months. He himself conducted the first performance during the celebration of Yom Kippur shortly thereafter and within weeks his anxieties about Europe were shown to be justified with the terrifying events of Kristallnacht at the beginning of November 1938.

Unsurprisingly, in the circumstances, this is a strongly-expressed score. It is, as the notes say, ‘largely a tonal work, but it is also a stark, strong modernist statement …’ The main focus of attention is the narrator, who delivers his words in English. Here the narrator is the Greek tenor, Alberto Mizrahi, who is apparently a specialist in Jewish music. He’s very clear in his delivery and he invests the words with meaning without ever resorting to histrionics. The Chicago Symphony Chorus makes a sterling contribution. Much of their singing is strongly committed but there are passages where Schoenberg requires delicacy and the CSC are just as successful in such episodes. With gripping orchestral playing this is a fine performance overall.

Recently I listened with colleagues to the first four Shostakovich songs in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio. We formed a very favourable view of the recording and that has been borne out by my own experience of listening to the CD in full on my own equipment. CSO Resound is a label that has invariably achieved excellent sonic results in my experience and this latest offering is no exception. The sound has impact, a wide dynamic range and is very detailed. Climaxes open up impressively – the huge climax at around 12:00 in the Schoenberg is a case in point. Yet the engineers have been just as adept in reporting the many passages of very soft music in the Shostakovich.

My principal recommendation is for the Shostakovich but those who acquire the disc primarily for the main work will get also a substantial Schoenberg score which is not, I think, all that often played.

John Quinn



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