SCHOENBERG Kol Nidre SHOSTAKOVICH Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti
Schoenberg’s 1938 setting of the Jewish prayer of atonement certainly succeeds in its aim to ‘vitriolise out the cello sentimentality of the Bruchs, etc’, as he put it. As a conception it forms an extremely interesting stage in his ideological journey (see, for example, Alexander Ringer’s book Arnold Schoenberg: The Composer as Jew; OUP: 1990). Unfortunately, as a piece of music it does not purge either the laboured style of his own return-to-tonality works or the cajoling earnestness of so much of his choral output. Compounded by the faintly embarrassing Sprechstimme declamation of the later Ode to Napoleon and Survivor from Warsaw, this perhaps helps explain why the piece has become one of his least often performed or recorded. Still, this performance at least projects the declaration of final faith with an authentic-sounding imperious quality.
Strange how much more contemporary Shostakovich sounds than Schoenberg in this curious juxtaposition. True, he too offers hostages to fortune in the Michelangelo Suite, not merely by selecting poems with such titles as ‘Truth’, ‘Love’, ‘Wrath’, ‘Creativity’, ‘Death’ and ‘Immortality’ but also by steadfastly turning his back on easy options to impress. Yet how much more his musical language makes of how much less; and how much more involving is his self-denying manner of expression. Made in 2012, this recording is Ildar Abrazakov’s second, and I hear a small but definite increase in authority and variety of colour over his 2005 Chandos account. On the other hand, the lyricism of ‘Night’ is slightly less secure, thanks not least to Noseda’s more flowing tempo, clearly helping him to sustain the line without discomfort.
Overall Muti’s pacing is not radically different from Noseda’s – each is entirely convincing. But while each orchestra finds its own colours in the accompaniment, the Chicagoans do have the edge in terms of sustained tone quality and bite, where required. Again, each recording is classy in its own way, Chandos’s maintaining more natural perspectives while the Chicago sound stage brings individual instruments and sections more to the fore. Chandos offers the Russian texts in Cyrillic, whereas the Chicago disc opts for transliterations but also helpfully includes the Italian originals.