Prokofiev and Shostakovich under Stalin – Michelangelo (21 March)

Five Poems of Akhmatova, Op.27
My Age, My Wild Beast [UK première]
Suite on Verses by Michelangelo Buonarroti, Op.145

Elena Prokina (soprano)
Mark Tucker (tenor)
Sergei Leiferkus (baritone)
Harriet Walter (reciter)
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 21 March, 2003
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Tenor Ilya Levinsky’s indisposition necessitated a re-ordering of the pieces, which placed the UK première of Shchedrin’s cycle as the final item.

Whilst this did not materially affect the programme as a whole, the sense of finality which Shostakovich’s cycle conveys would have been a more fitting conclusion to the evening. The recital began with Elena Prokina’s committed delivery of Prokofiev’s Akhmatova settings. Comparatively early songs, dating from 1917, they have little, if any, of the acerbity which characterises much of Prokofiev’s music from this period. Indeed lyrical and expressive qualities are to the fore, and Prokina and Ashkenazy, the latter providing responsive and illuminating accompaniments, captured these most effectively.

The vivid poetical imagery is well matched by Prokofiev’s eloquent vocal lines and the commentaries that the piano supplies. Phrases of expressive tenderness, such as are to be found in the third song – ’Memory of the sunlight’ – are set against more petulant moments and both singer and pianist made these sometimes pithy songs seem more substantial than they might first appear to be, encompassing as they do a varied range of moods.

Elena Prokina impressed as a singer with a wide palette of vocal colour on which to draw and was superbly supported by Ashkenazy. The sense of dialogue between the two was extremely effective. The spare piano writing, which Shostakovich deploys in his Suite on Verses by Michelangelo Buonarroti, was also carefully calculated by Ashkenazy so as to create maximum impact and impression.

Dating from 1974, the penultimate year of his life, like so many of his later works, Shostakovich reflects – perhaps broods would be a more appropriate epithet – on the notion of death. In this suite, there is a sense of nostalgia, yet yearning and defiance too. Also, there are verses which he set reflecting his love for his third wife, Irina Antonovna, where a touching tenderness emerges from the sometimes chilly air this music otherwise breathes.

In Sergei Leiferkus one could hardly imagine the nuances of the text being conveyed more penetratingly. His relish of words gave colour to notes that, on paper, might appear quite simple. But his response to the variety of verbal inflections, so acutely drawn by the composer, enabled one to appreciate the range of Shostakovich’s vocal writing. If a criticism can be made it is that Leiferkus’s implacable tone can lack variation, and yet his stoic delivery invariably seemed right for this decidedly uncomfortable cycle. One can well see why Shostakovich was drawn to these remarkable verses, with their possibility of sub-text in lines such as “when shame and crime are all around; it is a relief not to feel, not to see”, and Leiferkus ensured that no possible hidden meaning was lost. He was ably aided and abetted by Ashkenazy’s penetrating interpretation.

Quite often there are bare wisps of sound, with uneasy two-part writing shadowing the vocal line. But in the hammer-blow chords in ’Creativity’, their ferocity was all the more effective for the restraint deployed elsewhere. Of course, Shostakovich, as ever, has the last laugh – undoubtedly a sardonic one – with his perky, almost trite setting of the final ’Immortality’ whose concluding lines might well serve as an epitaph for the composer – “I live on in the hearts of all loving people, and that means I am not dust; mortal decay cannot touch me”. Leiferkus and Ashkenazy conveyed the touching irony of this to perfection – as they had judged the differing moods throughout this suite.

It would be idle to pretend that Rodion Shchedrin’s music is on the same level as that of his compatriots, but his cycle, My Age, My Wild Beast, on words by Osip Mandelstam is another Russian composer’s response to a repressive regime and, as such, was as dark and desperate as anything Shostakovich might have penned in one of his bleaker moments.

A ruminative piano prelude contained melodic and rhythmic material which were seeds for musical development throughout the cycle, and the tenor has music which was often anguished in expression and cruelly demanding in its writing. Mark Tucker was a late replacement for the indisposed Ilya Levinsky (I gather that Tucker replaced Levinsky in similar circumstances for this cycle’s first performance), but the work seemed to hold little terror for him, even when the tessitura was extraordinarily and consistently high. His Russian pronunciation was reasonably convincing, but even so the timbre of a native singer was missed.

The eight sung poems are interspersed with spoken passages in English, which document various incidents from Mandelstam’s life. These I found unconvincing. Harriet Walter’s very ’actorish’ delivery didn’t help and maybe the device might have worked better if the texts had been spoken in Russian. What was effective was the piano’s quiet accompaniment at these points, recalling the 19th-century idea of a monodrama. With Ashkenazy’s committed presence at the piano, the sometimes tortuous writing was communicated sincerely, but the overall mood was unrelievedly pessimistic without the hint of light – or half-light – that Shostakovich somehow manages to suggest even at his darkest.

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