The Boston Globe on Shostakovich's Romanzen-Suite

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Jeremy Eichler, classical music critic for The Boston Globe, writes for his column "Third Ear":

Exploring a composer’s music can be a bit like visiting a foreign city.

Most tours will take you to the famous postcard sites, yet of course a different kind of visit or, better still, a rambling stroll is required before a city gives up its more intimate treasures: the secret courtyard tucked away off a bustling street, the neighborhood restaurant blissfully lost in time, that one transfixing view of the sea. It can be these more modest encounters that linger in one’s memory, if only because they disclose the essence of a place in its purest and perhaps most beautiful form.The musical estate of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) by now requires little introduction. The tour buses have circled, the major monuments — 15 Symphonies, 15 String Quartets — have been duly annotated in our guidebooks. Even the rancorous debates over the composer’s political beliefs are by now, it seems, themselves slowly receding into history.

But among his vast catalog of works, there are still so many smaller gems, and all too invisible. Having spotted a rare upcoming performance (July 7 at Yellow Barn music festival) of one of the composer’s more extraordinary pieces of vocal music, I can’t resist devoting today’s column to the “Seven Romances on Verses by Alexander Blok.”

This song cycle of 1967, scored for soprano, cello, violin, and piano, not only contains some of the most piercingly beautiful music Shostakovich ever wrote, but also speaks with his most deeply personal tone. The texts by Blok, Russia’s most revered Symbolist poet, are transfigured by Shostakovich’s musical voice, sounding here free of accent or strain. One senses in this music that a composer of many masks has momentarily dropped them all. The songs glow with the quiet light of the real.

Their story begins in May of 1966, when, after years of declining health and nervous agitation, Shostakovich suffered a heart attack. His recovery was long and dispiriting, and he feared his creative gifts had been lost. The hospital doctors forbade him from composing, but he read Blok’s poetry. Months later, aided by a few furtive swigs of brandy, the floodgates opened and, in just three days, out poured this group of seven songs.

The composer had his pretexts. The cellist Mstislav Rostropovich had requested a piece of music to perform with his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, and Shostakovich later claimed this was the impetus behind the Blok cycle, before, that is, he realized how many instruments were required to draw out the full implications of these remarkable poems. At another point, Shostakovich asked his wife to suggest her favorite Blok poems so that he might set them to music, but the final suite reflects none of her choices.

No, in the end, this was music written for no one but Shostakovich himself. His friend Isaak Glikman called these songs the composer’s “confession” and later wrote that “the Blok cycle reveals the anguish of Shostakovich’s soul with unique clarity and poignancy.” Vishnevskaya, to whom the cycle is dedicated, praised their “agonizing beauty” and wrote that Shostakovich, having survived his brush with death, “seems to survey his journey as if from the vault of the heavens.”

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