Six Romances on Texts by Japanese Poets, op. 21, for tenor and orchestra (1928-1932)
CD: “Shostakovich: The Orchestral Songs, Volume 2” (Deutsche Grammophon 447 085-2)
Ilya Levinsky, tenor; Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra; Neeme Järvi
On Wednesday evening, my girlfriend Kyle and I went moonviewing at the Portland Japanese Garden, an event they host annually based on a traditional Japanese festival. From folding chairs lined up to face east, we had a dramatic view of the partially clouded full moon rising over the city skyline below us and the indistinct hills beyond it. Also on offer were food and sake samples, koto and flute music, bilingual haiku readings (each read twice, I suppose, to make them last longer), quietly mesmerizing demonstrations of the Japanese tea ceremony. And, most importantly, a rare chance to walk around the Garden’s grounds after dusk. It may have been appropriate, I thought, to skip ahead one work to Shostakovich’s Japanese songs that day, to add another element of reflected Japanese culture; but why break the satisfying monotonic increase of the opus numbers? Besides, the Japanese Garden’s O-Tsukimi, despite its trappings of middlebrow entertainment, fostered a mood of quiet contemplation of the passing seasons; Shostakovich’s songs are youthful treatments of the universal artistic concern of sex and death, with emphasis on the former.
These six songs, like the pieces for string octet, are familiar to me from years of occasional CD listening — Järvi’s fine volume of orchestral songs, unfortunately discontinued, is a favorite of mine — although they’ve always resided somewhat outside of my understanding of Shostakovich’s stylistic development. Heard now, they represent another modernist-leaning path in the composer’s early career, full of prowling lines and eerie, penumbral dissonances. The set, though assembled piecemeal over four years, sustains a mostly continuous atmosphere of nocturnal restlessness. The first song, “Love”, sets the tone with illustrative touches of harp, mallet percussion, rumbling gongs, distant-sounding brass; in the present recording, tenor Ilya Levinsky sings with an artful strain in his voice, playing up the music’s passionate anxiety. (Shostakovich’s music seems to suggest that the planned rendezvous of the poem may not be so confidently expected.) The dissonances become more raw in the unsubtly dramatic second song, “Before Suicide”, with some expressionistic tone-painting for “The wild geese [that] cry out in fright / over the lake, cry out once more”:
(I quote from Joan Pemberton Smith’s translations in the album notes, as Laurence R. Richter’s Complete Song Texts turns out to have translated a slightly different version of the poems than what is sung here. The Russian translations of the original texts, from various and sometimes anonymous Japanese poets, are credited at least in part to one A. Brandt.)
The tension never leaves the work even in its lighter moments; at the end of “An Immodest Glance”, a saucy little scene of the wind momentarily blowing a woman’s skirt up from her legs, there is an uncertain or abstract quality to the music that removes it from the poet’s professions of joy:
The music becomes less gauzy for the actually consummated romance of “The First and Last Time”, and “Love without Hope” reaches a lovely, fleeting reverie at the thought of an encounter, albeit a hypothetical one couched within a negation: “It is not I who will caress you, / not I who, exhausted by your caresses, / will fall asleep beside you.”
Looking slightly ahead, the moment has an analog in Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, composed in parallel with the last of these songs. In Katerina’s aria of sexual longing late in Act I, a similarly constructed text and musical concept gets a more extensive, more ardent treatment. (“No one will stroke my white breast, / No one will tire me out with his passionate embraces”, etc.)
The sixth song, “Death”, returns to the dark mood of the opening, with its repetitions of “I am dying” and its final pensive fadeout. It’s good music, particularly in its instrumental colors, and though there isn’t great variation among each setting it works as a continuous, inwardly agitated fifteen-minute rumination on the fraught intensity of love. (Shostakovich dedicated the songs to his new wife Nina Varzar, as he did with the sexually frustrated/explosive/disastrous Lady Macbeth, making it all but impossible to avoid an autobiographical reading.) Shostakovich’s popularity seems to grow year by year — I’ve been riding that wave myself, really, since the mid-90s — so I can’t claim that any aspect of his output is underrated, but nonetheless I feel that his orchestral songs deserve more attention.