The London Song Festival 2008 – Sergei Leiferkus & Nigel Foster: Shostakovich

Preface to the Complete Collection of My Works and Brief Reflections on this Preface, Op.123
Six Romances on Verses by English Poets, Op.62 [selection]
Symphony No.14, Op.135b/9 – O Del’vig, Del’vig
Five Romances on Texts from the Magazine ‘Krokodil’, Op.121
Suite on Verses by Michelangelo, Op.145

Sergei Leiferkus (bass-baritone) & Nigel Foster (piano)

Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: 21 November, 2008
Venue: St John’s, Smith Square, London

Sergei LeiferkusTo some, it must have seemed daring to mount an entire evening of songs by Dmitri Shostakovich for bass voice and piano, but when the works in question demonstrate Shostakovich’s greatness in this field and the singer is arguably (though the argument would not last long, at least, from the dissenting viewpoint) the greatest living interpreter of them, no justification is necessary.

This was a magnificent recital, such as one hears very rarely in London (if at all), the depth and range of emotional expression in Shostakovich’s song-writing being clear for all to hear.

The first half was dominated by the more satirical of the composer’s songs, beginning with the extraordinarily-entitled Opus 123, a setting of a brief “jocular poem by the composer (paraphrasing Pushkin’s Poetical History of 1817)” as Derek Hulme has described this 130-second miniature.

The British poems were naturally more serious in intent; they were composed some months after Russia entered the Second World War against Hitler, the three in this recital being settings of poems by Burns and Shakespeare. The ninth movement of the Fourteenth Symphony, to a text by Wilhelm Küchelbeker, is even more tragic in expression, and it was a rare opportunity to hear this movement in the composer’s own arrangement for voice and piano.

The vastly humorous “Krokodil” satires came as a complete contrast – or was the contrast that complete, with the words of the third song “Although that hooligan Fedulov beat me up, I didn’t report him to our wonderful police force. I decided that one beating was enough” having more than a grain of satirical truth?

Throughout this first half, Sergei Leiferkus revealed his total mastery of this exceptionally wide-ranging music, with Nigel Foster (founder and director of the London Song Festival) consistently proving himself to be an admirable partner.

The second half enabled us to hear what is in fact (as the composer subsequently admitted to his son, Maxim) the first version of the Sixteenth Symphony (which Shostakovich never lived to hear in the orchestral edition). Whichever version we hear, this work is a very great masterpiece, and in terms of expressive power is certainly the composer’s greatest vocal work outside of the opera house.

On this occasion, the audience was given a performance of the greatest penetration and insight, such as is rarely vouchsafed. The consistent excellence of Leiferkus’s performance causes one to pause before singling out any one song for special mention, but your correspondent was greatly moved by No.8, ‘Creativity’, which may be the very finest of all.

This was a quite magnificent recital and a superb artistic experience.

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