Norman Lebrecht’s Album of the week – vocal works by Schoenberg & Shostakovich
Schoenberg: Kol Nidre. Shostakovich: Michelangelo Verses
** (2 of 5)
Two composers in despair, reaching deep into their souls. Arnold Schoenberg, a penniless refugee in Los Angeles in 1938, was commissioned by a liberal temple to make a modern version of the Yom Kippur introductory prayer. Dmitri Shostakovich, dying of lung cancer in 1974, wrote a song cycle for bass singer and piano from Michelangelo’s battle between public expectation and personal need. Together, the two works contains some of the darkest moments known to music.
Schoenberg, unexpectedly, delivers confidence, hope and consolation. Without yielding to the temptations of simple faith or melody, he conjures serenity out of musical austerity by reducing the famous Kol Nidre tune to snatches of backdrop within a drama of his own making. Cantor Alberto Mizrahi delivers the text with excessive ferocity, but that may have been necessary with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus playing full-out against him.
The Michelangelo songs are becoming dangerously popular. I have heard three performances in the past year, to the point where I have started to mouth the Russian words along with the singer. This is just as well with this recording since Ildar Abdrazakov’s diction is not as distinct as, say Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s. The versions I have heard lately are the original voice and piano score. The orchestration adds depth of field and layered beauty, at the cost of flexibility and spontaneity. Chicago play with passion and Riccardo Muti conducts with conviction. I still prefer the piano version.
That said, no musical household should be without these two works of genius. You never know when you will need one or other in emergency.