Shostakovich Songs and Romances

songsandromancesI’ve listened to a lot of music for voice and piano and a lot of music by Shostakovich but it was only on listening to this new album by Margarita Gritskova and Maria Prinz that I realised that I had hardly heard any of Shostakovich’s art songs; except for a few with orchestra.  So I was glad to discover the interesting collection on this CD.  There are twenty songs taken from twelve different works.  (most of DS’ song cycles seem to require multiple voice types.  I guess labour was cheap in the USSR).  The pieces are drawn from right across Shostakovich’s career from Op.4 to Op.145.  The evolution of style is as clear as in his chamber or orchestral music.

So, there are light hearted, pretty and playful pieces like “The Dragonfly and the Ant” from 2 Fables of Krylov Op.4 but even early on there’s some much darker stuff.  There are two songs from 6 Romances by Japanese Poets Op.21a and, of course, the combination of Japanese poetry and a Russian composer guarantees that they are about death.  The way these sit for Gritskova’s voice is interesting too.  She’s got a really quite dark mezzo that suits the more brooding stuff set in the lower register but she can sound strident in her upper register.  I’m not sure though that’s a criticism when singing Shostakovich.  One thinks of the brass on the old Melodiya recordings of the symphonies!

There are settings of Pushkin and Lermontov from the period when Shostakovich enjoyed an ambivalent relationship with the Soviet state.  These are more clearly Russian but in a kind of sardonic way and, if the vocal line follows the party line the piano line often does not.  There are some quite odd pieces here as well including two pieces from 6 Romances Op.62.  One sets Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65 with a strange bong, bong, bong feel to the piano and a rather wailing vocal line and it’s followed by a very short, bright and silly setting of a version of “The Grand Old Duke of York”.

There’s material from different folk traditions too including two numbers from the reasonably well known From Jewish Folk Poetry Op.79, the 2 Greek Songs and the Spanish Songs Op.100 which are parodies of every Spanish song you have ever heard with faint overtones of the Pythons singing about llamas.

There are also pieces from late in the composer’s career when he’s pretty much stopped pretending to conform, including the very odd Preface to the Complete Edition of my Works and a Brief Reflection apropos of this Preface Op. 123.  This starts with a paraphrase of an epigram by Pushkin and then goes on to list all of Shostakovich’s awards, medals and honourable titles as well as official duties as First Secretary of the Composers’ Union and member of the Communist Party.  It’s deliciously ironic.

The music mostly sits well for Gritskova and she does have an attractive, quite Slavic, mezzo.  Prinz is well up to the considerable challenges of the piano part.  All in all it’s a pretty good sampler of a side of Shostakovich that’s not often heard.

The recording, made in Bayerische Rundfunk’s Studio 2 last July, is clear and well balanced.  The disk comes with a generous booklet that includes all the texts in Russian (Cyrillic) plus, variously, either English/German translation or an English/German synopsis.

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