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Gerald Finley’s Ondine debut explores an unfamiliar side of Shostakovich

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Last month Canadian baritone Gerald Finley released his first album on Ondine. He performs three compositions by Dmitri Shostakovich with Thomas Sanderling conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, each of which involves a world premiere. The Opus 62 settings of six texts by Walter Raleigh, Robert Burns, and William Shakespeare was composed for bass and piano in 1942. However, Shostakovich then prepared his Opus 62a version with orchestral accompaniment in 1943; and this album presents its first recording. This is followed by an “encore track” of Shostakovich’s orchestration of “Annie Laurie,” which also has never been previously recorded. The remainder of the recording consists of the Opus 145a, the orchestral version of Shostakovich’s settings of eleven poems by Michelangelo, composed in 1975 and recorded for the first time with the texts sung in Italian.

Many will probably be surprised that Shostakovich took an interest in English poets. However, this music was composed when both the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union were allies in the thick of battle with the Nazis. The siege of Leningrad had begun of September 8, 1941; and Shostakovich completed his Opus 60 symphony in C major in December of that year, choosing to name it after that city that was his home but which he had to evacuate. The texts he collected for Opus 62 are strongly colored by the darkness of war, even if the last of them, “The King’s Campaign,” is overtly sardonic about it. One can thus approach the cycle as an expression of shared hardship, for which the setting of “Annie Laurie” seems like an attempt to share also some sense of nostalgia. Finley gives all of these songs a clear and expressive account, working well to blend his voice with Sanderling’s interpretation of Shostakovich’s equally expressive approach to instrumentation.

There may be a similar “British connection” to Opus 145. Benjamin Britten’s setting of seven of Michelangelo’s sonnets (Opus 22) was also composed during the Second World War, although at the time (1940) both he and tenor Peter Pears were living in the United States. It is unlikely that Shostakovich would have gotten to known this cycle at the time of its composition. However, he and Britten became close friends in 1960; and that friendship most likely led to each getting to know the other’s work.

We thus may have Britten to thank for Shostakovich taking an interest in Michelangelo as a source of poetic texts that could be set to music. Shostakovich may also have been drawn to the intense passion of the texts that Britten had chosen, and his admiration for Britten may have inspired him to seek out other texts that moved him as strongly as his friend had been moved by his own selections. Furthermore, as I have previously observed, the power of Britten’s settings lies in how he could penetrate the “semantic core” of each of the sonnets he selected, without letting excessive attention to the uniform structural conventions shared by all of those poems interfere with his musical expressiveness.

Shostakovich, on the other hand, worked with a Russian translation of the Italian prepared by Abram Efros. I do not know to what extent Efros chose to honor sonnet structure or the rhyme schemes of the poems Shostakovich selected that were not sonnets. However, it is clear that, like Britten, Shostakovich was primarily interest in the underlying semantics. Indeed, the boldness of Shostakovich’s rhetoric in the eleven songs may well be a “response” to the boldness that Britten had engaged in his own selections.

The only real contrast, then, would be that, even when singing in Italian, Finley still captures the sonorities of the Russian bass voice. In terms of sonority, this is a major shift from the “English tenor” of Pears’ voice. Thus, for all the ways in which Shostakovich’s settings may complement those of Britten, the individuality of each set resides in its own characteristic sonority, particularly through the selection of vocal range. This may best be appreciated through the ability to listen to these two collections side-by-side, an opportunity that is very unlikely to arise in any concert setting.

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