Often, a famous composer's last works will assume a retroactively valedictory air. But there's nothing in the classical repertoire more obviously intended as its composer's final word than Shostakovich's Fourteenth Symphony. He was in his early sixties and already in seriously declining health when he wrote it in 1966-69, and what should he turn out but a song cycle - for two singers and a small chamber orchestra of strings and percussion - of eleven poems, all of them on the subject of Death. Talk about morbid. Some of the settings are active in a frantic, danse macabre kind of way - a mood Shostakovich found easier in his later years to depict than genuine wit - but most of them are just ose. ("Ose, ose, and morose," as we used to say about stagnant, downbeat songs in filking circles.) So powerfully depressing is this work that a major Soviet official rushed out of the hall in the middle of the first Moscow performance. People thought he was expressing his disapproval, but no, he'd just suffered what would shortly become a fatal heart attack.
At yesterday's performance, Sergei Leiferkus had just the kind of deep, hollowly echoing baritone voice needed to put across these spit-spewing Russian syllables. He was not well matched, however, with Olga Guryakova, whose rounded soprano was too smooth for the material, as well as being frequently too weak to be heard over the restrained accompaniment, and so pearly in diction that the words were unintelligible. Despite conductor James Conlon's admonition to the audience that this is a work that's about its words, so we should follow the transliterated and translated lyrics in our program books, I lost my place early in song #3 and never quite got it back.
(Ironically, unlike that Soviet official, Shostakovich did not die immediately after completing this work. He lived for another six years and wrote, among other things, a fifteenth symphony, emotively as cryptic and undecipherable a work as exists in the repertoire. After knifing yourself in the Fourteenth, what else is there left to say?)
Because Shostakovich had modeled his work on Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death, it was followed by no, not that, but Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (another death-oriented work, as the exhibition it depicts was of an artist, a friend of the composer's, who'd just died), as mediated by the colorful orchestration of Maurice Ravel. Good performance: technically impressive, interpretatively satisfactory, nothing more to say than that.
Except that, although the Shostakovich was played first and the Mussorgsky is much briefer, half the audience didn't show up until after intermission. They really, really didn't want to hear the Song Cycle of Death (whereas I really did), but they were willing to wait over an hour to pop in for a piece only 30 minutes long. Wait till next week, when Conlon conducts Verdi's Requiem - a mass for the dead, don't forget - and nothing else. (I won't be there; I traded in my ticket for this one. As I said, I really wanted to hear this.)