Shostakovich’s first and last operas are brought together in this reissue of recordings made for Melodiya in the Seventies. Both based on Gogol, whose wit and sense of the grotesque are admirably conveyed, they’re extraordinary, if flawed works. The Nose (1930) is an absurdist satire on government bureaucracy in which the nose of a petty official becomes detached and takes on a life of its own. With 78 singing roles plus chorus and actors, it’s too unwieldy to have established itself as a stage work (Shostakovich called it a ‘theatre symphony’), but musically it is innovative, spiky and abrasive.
The Gamblers was written in 1942 but never finished and not premiered until the night this recording was made in 1978, using an ending contrived by Rozhdestvensky. It calls on similar musical vocabulary to The Nose, but the overall effect is more lyrical and accessible with its cabaret atmosphere and references to Russian folk song. That its cast of six are all men makes for a certain sameness in the vocal writing, which is also hampered by the fact that the lines of Gogol’s wordy play are a mouthful to sing. But this vital, dynamic and intensely idiomatic performance suggests it’s a taut, compelling piece of music drama. Both recordings have been excellently remastered: the sound is vivid, bright and immediate, with the voices well forward so that every word is distinct. It’s only a shame the libretti are not included. Claire Wrathall