Shostakovich/Mussorgsky: Symphony No. 14; Songs and Dances of Death

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Shostakovich/Mussorgsky
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Symphony No. 14; Songs and Dances of Death
PERFORMER: Ljuba Kazarnovskaya (soprano), Sergei Leiferkus (bass), Brigitte Fassbaender (mezzo-soprano); Gothenburg SO/Neeme Järvi
CATALOGUE NO: 437 785-2 DDD
Not a disc for the faint hearted, Shostakovich’s Fourteenth, an orchestral song cycle ruminating upon various aspects of death, is undoubtedly one of the composer’s most powerful works. It’s a harrowing document, painting an uncompromisingly bleak picture of Shostakovich’s final years, which were dogged by persistent ill health and emotional bitterness. Such music appears tailor-made for the talents of Järvi, who inspires the Gothenburg orchestra to playing of considerable urgency and dynamism. Both vocal soloists are excellent: Kazarnovskaya offers a chilling account of ‘The Suicide’, while Leiferkus’s doom-laden ‘At the Santé Jail’ and the heart-rending ‘O Delvig’ are particularly moving. Occasionally, the performance lacks atmosphere (as in the delineation of the opening string phrase), and tension sags disappointingly in the middle of ‘Lorelei’, the most avowedly operatic movement in the whole work.

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Yet, all in all, this is a very compelling experience, much enhanced by the inclusion of the equally overwhelming Mussorgsky song cycle which is its spiritual ancestor. Performed here in Shostakovich’s incisive orchestration of 1962, this work benefits greatly from the presence of a female voice in the opening ‘Lullaby’, although I missed the darker tones of the bass-baritone in the gruesome ‘Field-Marshal’. Erik Levi