Review on Opera News

SHOSTAKOVICH: Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti

THIS LIVE CHICAGO SYMPHONY recording—the seventh that music director Riccardo Muti has released on the CSO’s own label—combines two relatively little-known twentieth century works. In 1938, Schoenberg had fled Nazi Germany and settled in Southern California; reports from Europe were alarming. A local Reform rabbi asked the composer to furnish a version of the Kol Nidre prayer, traditionally offered up as the Day Of Remembrance begins.

Schoenberg specifically wished to avoid what he felt was the “cello sentimentality” of such versions as that by Max Bruch (1881) and transmute the essential character of the melody. A quietly shimmering, then brooding orchestral introduction takes up more than three minutes (and thus more than a quarter) of the work. Then rhythmic speech by a rabbi, in dialogue with a singing chorus, is heard over an instrumental accompaniment that varies greatly in dynamics and composition. Veteran tenor and cantor Alberto Mizrahi displays clear diction in English and Hebrew but to my (secular) ear his narration sounds stagy and melodramatic beyond anything I’ve encountered in any kind of liturgical framework. Still, this recording is a chance to hear this rarity very well played and sung.

The Shostakovich piece—the Russian composer’s last major work—has in fact received several recordings, including an estimable 2006 release on Chandos, with bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov under Gianandrea Noseda leading the BBC Philharmonic. The CSO is perhaps a greater orchestra, and offers a more fully considered interpretation here. Soloist Abdrazakov has worked frequently with Muti, including in the title role of the Italian maestro’s only Met engagement, Verdi’s Attila in 2010.

The cycle came after Shostakovich’s ailments were compounded by a 1973 diagnosis of lung cancer. Michelangelo’s avowed independence in aesthetic matters made him something of a hero the in Soviet intellectual cosmology; Shostakoich read his sonnets in translations by Abram Efros (1888–1954). The composer’s selection from among these was used in the composition, though he had asked the illustrious Andrei Voznesensky to prepare new versions (which he did, too late). The work had its premiere in Leningrad in December 1974 in its version with piano (Op. 145), with the great bass Yevgeny Nesterenko as soloist. Shostakovich subsequently orchestrated the eleven poems—the same number of texts as in his Fourteenth Symphony—as Op. 145a, but he died before hearing them performed. (The premiere again featured Nesterenko.) Some of the composer’s associates say he described the orchestrated version as his final symphony (which aligns it with Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, a clear inspiration).

The CSO brass has a field day. In the quiet numbers, Muti obtains the needed delicacy of Mussorgskian woodwind filigree and percussive punctuation in the music surrounding the (usually string-accompanied) poetic declamation. Abdrazakov is an engaged musician with a fine, powerful bass-baritone, less granitic in texture than Nesterenko. The recording captures a resonant live acoustic successfully; the audience makes almost no noise, perhaps mesmerized by the intensity of the music.

The booklet provides the Russian texts in transliteration, not Cyrillic, as well as English, German and Italian.


David Shengold, Opera News, 22 Febbraio 2017

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