Shostakovich’s songs continue to lag behind the rest of his output in terms of their representation on recordings and in concert, and the language barrier is clearly a prime reason. Getting over that barrier is fraught with complications, however, starting with the fact that Shostakovich himself was always more interested in the ethical content of his texts than in their poetic quality. No linguist or literary scholar himself, he was also far from a purist when it came to performances in non-Russian-speaking countries.
So there is much to be said for Gerald Finley’s reinstating of the original English-language texts of Six Romances on verses by Raleigh, Burns and Shakespeare, and his going back to the original Italian for the Michelangelo sonnets. That entails a few – though remarkably few – necessary adjustments to the composer’s rhythms. For the Suite the idea is not new. Fischer-Dieskau recorded the sonnets that way in 1987 (in the piano version with Aribert Reimann); hence Ondine’s description, ‘world premiere recording of the Italian version’, is not strictly speaking accurate. I’m not sure anyone can claim precedence for the Op 62 cycle but here again Ondine’s claim to world premiere status for the ‘orchestral version’ is shaky, given that Safiulin and Rozhdestvensky were there in 1986 (the two-CD reissue has admittedly eluded my searches but a reliable owner-friend has confirmed that it contains the Op 62a full orchestral version rather than the more commonly heard rescoring for chamber orchestra, Op 140).
With the performances themselves, things are much more straightforward. Finley and Sanderling are compelling advocates, and their subtlety makes for a refreshing change from the more stentorian delivery of certain old Soviet counterparts. For the Russian texts and vocal timbres, Sulejmanov on Capriccio and Leiferkus on DG are reliable back-ups. But this new disc has to be applauded for its initiative, as also for its top-notch sound quality; and given that the Safiulin and Fischer-Dieskau alternatives are practically unobtainable, anyone interested in acquiring it should not hesitate.(Gramophone)