An amazing thing about Shostakovich's 1974 "Suite on Verses of Michelango"
is how rarely this huge, gripping homage to Mussorgsky and Mahler is
performed. As a practical programming consideration, it would be the
perfect pair for Mussorgsky's "Songs and Dances of Death."
Tonight's performance in Herbst Theater was probably the local premiere
for this extraordinary song cycle. Featuring baritone Matthias Goerne
and pianist Alexander Schmalcz, the San Francisco Performances concert
looked promising, but it turned into a partial disappointment.
There was wonderful singing, but it all came from Schmalcz, whose splendid
pianism served the music, not the performer. On the other hand, Goerne
reveled in his own voice, made mush of the work. Stuck in the score
when not "conducting" the music, with a diction not worth the name, an
unvariegated, almost monotonous performance of a rich, varied, dynamic
cycle, Goerne struck out as never before in his many appearances here.
Michelangelo's text, in Abram Efros' Russian translation, speaks of life
and death, love and anger, truth and immortality - but it all sounded
the same, both in diction and phrasing. Schmalcz's brilliant piano
carried all the impact of words and music - a rare accomplishment,
considering he had to perform the role of an orchestra which Shostakovich
had in mind for the work. (Nearing the end of his life, the composer
was unable to turn the 40-minute cycle into his planned Symphony No.
As for Goerne (of whom I spoke only well in the past), when he sang of
morning's joy or night's deadly relief, words and music sounded the same.
We heard the savage power of "Truth" and "Wrath," the anguish of "Parting"
and "Night," the lyricism of "Morning" and "Love" from the piano, not
the singer. The concert served as an important reminder of great,
neglected music, and of the fallibility of an artist who has neglected
to learn the music, the text, and who substituted voice for singing.
There is a YouTube excerpt at
with an unidentified bass - I think it's Nesterenko.
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