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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 (1974, orch. 1975) [42:36]
Alberto Mizrahi (narrator) (Schoenberg)
Ildar Abdrazakov (bass) (Shostakovich)
Chicago Symphony Chorus/Duain Wolfe (Schoenberg)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
rec. live Orchestra Hall, City Center, Chicago, March 2012 (Schoenberg), June 2012 (Shostakovich)
Original texts with English, French and German translations included
CSO RESOUND CSOR9011602 [56:50]

John Quinn designated this CD a Recording of the Month for his recent review and I would have to agree with him on the quality of the release. To couple these composers is unusual enough, but to include one of Schoenberg’s least performed works is particularly noteworthy. The performances and recordings are first-class in every way. While the selections were recorded live, there is no aural indication of an audience present and no intrusive applause at the conclusion of either work.

Schoenberg composed his Kol Nidre after he emigrated to the USA and took up residence in California. As with his Kammersymphonie No. 2 (1939), which immediately followed, the composer had reverted to a tonal idiom. Some commentators have seen this as a falling off of his creativity, but I have always welcomed these later works as being more approachable than his twelve-tone music and individual enough to warrant increased exposure. Kol Nidre, a traditional setting for Yom Kippur, is a powerful, stark piece from Schoenberg’s pen and one that fits in well with Shostakovich’s rather dark suite of songs. Although modern in sound, the work contains rhythmic figures reminiscent of Brahms. It begins quietly with interesting flute and clarinet solos and builds up quite a head of steam with the narrator declaiming the text in dialogue with the chorus. According to a note in the CD booklet, Alberto Mizrahi is “one of the world’s leading interpreters of Jewish music.” His narration here is certainly credible and creditable, and he is well accompanied by the chorus and orchestra. There are several other recordings of the work, including those by the BBC Symphony and Chorus under Pierre Boulez with John Shirley-Quirk as narrator (Sony), and the Philharmonia Orchestra and Simon Joly Chorale under Robert Craft with David Wilson-Johnson narrating (Naxos), but this new account was my first exposure to Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre. I am glad I have heard it, but don’t know how often I will return to it.

That is not the case with Shostakovich’s Suite on Verses of Michelangelo. These songs are some of the greatest late works of Shostakovich, which he composed after his Fourteenth and Fifteenth Symphonies. As Phillip Huscher notes in the CD booklet, Shostakovich considered this work to be his “sixteenth symphony” and, along with his Viola Sonata, the last of his compositions. Although Shostakovich originally conceived of the song cycle with piano accompaniment, Khachaturian suggested he orchestrate it. The orchestration, while spare, even gaunt, is both beautifully sensitive and powerful as required by the poetry. One could call this suite a “symphony” much as Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde is often thought of in that way.

I first heard this work in its orchestral version as sung by Yevgeny Nesterenko, whose voice Shostakovich had in mind when he wrote the original with piano. I had hoped his recording would appear on CD, but it has never been released in this format to my knowledge. What has given me great pleasure, however, is the two-disc set of Shostakovich orchestral songs performed by various soloists with the Gothenburg Symphony under Neeme Järvi (DG). The Michelangelo suite is sung by the baritone, Sergei Leiferkus. While Shostakovich intended a bass voice in these songs, Leiferkus does well particularly in the lighter verses. Nonetheless, the deeper, richer voice of Nesterenko or of Ildar Abdrazakov on this new recording is a definite advantage in many of the songs. What is most noticeable between the two soloists is their dynamic range. Abdrazakov is amazing in the breadth of his dynamics, whereas Leiferkus has a narrower range. Overall, the Chicago Symphony is technically superior to the Gothenburg orchestra and the recorded sound provided by CSO Resound is stunning and more immediate than DG’s for Leiferkus. I found Leiferkus especially eloquent in “Morning,” “Love”, and “Creativity.” Elsewhere I tend to prefer Abdrazakov, though there is little to choose between them in the enigmatic final song, “Immortality.” At times the slightly rawer sound of the Gothenburg brass, such as the horns in “Creativity,” suits the music better than the more refined Chicago brass. There are references to the two preceding symphonies in “Night” and “Death,” respectively. The string interlude in “Night” is a direct quote from the “chorale” in the Symphony No. 14’s tenth movement, “the Poet’s Death,” and the trombones play a theme used in the second movement of the Symphony No. 15. These quotations are readily apparent in the Chicago Symphony’s performance. I think it was a stroke of genius for Shostakovich to end this suite with the childlike melody of “Immortality,” much as he concluded his Fifteenth Symphony with the ticking and clicking sounds of percussion. After all the angst he has provided earlier, one can take leave with a smile on one’s face.

As to the two accounts, I would not want to relinquish Leiferkus/Järvi. Not only does the performance have plenty of merit, but the coupling with two of the other Shostakovich orchestral song cycles is indispensable. On the other hand, Abdrazakov/Muti are superb in every way and the unusual companion of Schoenburg’s Kol Nidre is worthy enough to make this release some cause for celebration.

Leslie Wright
Previous review: John Quinn (Recording of the Month)


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