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Shostakovich: Six Verses of Maria Tsvetayeva etc

Elizabeth Atherton (soprano), Jess Dandy (contralto), Peter Rose (bass); BBC Philharmonic/John Storgårds (Chandos)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

Six Verses of Marina Tsvetayeva*; Symphony No. 14†
†Elizabeth Atherton (soprano), *Jess Dandy (contralto), †Peter Rose (bass); BBC Philharmonic/John Storgårds
Chandos CHSA 5310 (CD/SACD)   74:47 mins

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With his penultimate symphony – in effect a song cycle for two voices, strings and percussion – and his late cycle of songs on verses by the hapless poet Marina Tsvetayeva, we enter expressively the darkest corner of Shostakovich’s creativity. Both works were composed when he was in increasingly poor health, having suffered heart attacks and frailty diagnosed as motor neurone disease.

Though these are hardly works most listeners would turn to for pleasure, this is mandatory listening for anyone who cares for this great 20th-century composer. Here they are given fine performances, most particularly of Symphony No. 14, that sympathetically manifest the humanity that underlies Shostakovich’s fairly stark and often quite grim settings.

Elizabeth Atherton and Peter Rose have already performed the 14th Symphony together under different conductors to great critical acclaim. While they are both vocally a little past their prime in terms of conventional beauty, they bring a profound engagement and expression to the various poems Shostakovich compiled by Lorca, Apollinaire, Küchelbecker and Rilke – all in Russian translation (so Chandos’s failure to provide sung texts and translations is a serious disservice to its listeners, particularly as some of the Russian translations are less than exact). The BBC Philharmonic under John Storgårds, in this third instalment of their symphonic Shostakovich series, are exemplary, whether in the sotto voce opening of the Symphony, or in the horrific aural images conjured in ‘The Suicide’.

Jess Dandy, a more youthful singer, is in fine voice for her fine if not quite as deeply engaged account of the Tsvetayeva songs, with atmospheric accompaniment from orchestra and conductor.

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Daniel Jaffé