For such a fashionable composer, Shostakovich's songs remain largely neglected. This is a shame because they are among his greatest works. A good candidate for being his greatest work is the orchestral song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry (1948), written in the wake of his second denunciation by the Soviet regime and not performed, for political reasons, until after Stalin's death. At a time when anti-Semitism was becoming state policy and the composer was in official disfavour, composing pieces that highlighted the suffering of Jewish people, however discreetly, was never going to be looked upon favourably. Despite that, Shostakovich famously incorporated Jewish themes in several of his major works from those years and, under Khrushchev's thaw, returned to the theme of anti-Semitism in his Thirteenth Symphony (Babi Yar) of 1962, publicly protesting (to considerable official squeamishness) against all forms and manifestations of anti-Semitism, including the Stalinist variety.
From Jewish Folk Poetry is, as you might expect, predominantly bleak in nature, dealing at it does largely with the subjects of oppression and poverty, but these eleven songs manage not only not to be dispiriting but instead to be various in mood - tragic, comic, tragicomic, romantic - and an absolute pleasure to listen to. They call for a soprano, a mezzo, a tenor and an orchestra. The singers sing solos, duets and trios, which gives the cycle a dramatic and, at many times, an operatic character.
1. The Lament for the Dead Child. The opening song, for the soprano and mezzo, is a masterly song by any standards. To a trudging rhythm, keening woodwind and sad horns lament and the singers weave their beautiful lines together. The touching central dialogue over swaying strings reminds me strongly of Mussorgsky and the climax, where the voices sing in thirds, is magnificent.
2. The Thoughtful Mother and Aunt. This 'comic' song, again for the female singers only, is no less masterful. Pizzicato strings provide the accompaniment, with comments from a solo clarinet, to the artfully artless-sounding 'folk-tune', whose melody begins on the notes of a major triad but is soon chromatically-inflected to give it a minor-key feel. It passes back between two main keys, somewhat obsessively. The effect is eerily hypnotic.
3. Lullaby. A grim but beautiful song for the mezzo. To a trudging pizzicato accompaniment (sometimes bolstered by Wagnerian brass), her deeply expressive melody receives words of comfort from some tender woodwind solos - of which the the one for flute is the loveliest. This is a very great song whose momentary brightenings of tonality and scoring touch the heart.
4. Before a Long Parting. This soprano-tenor duet is especially operatic, beginning with powerfully impressive declamatory singing from the soprano, backed by low winds. This passage alternates with romance-like sections. It's a fabulous, thrilling song.
5. A Warning. This short song for the soprano sets her in an expressive duet with a solo clarinet.
6. The Abandoned Father. This is another powerful 'operatic duet', this time for the mezzo and tenor. It's a vivid piece of scene-painting. At its climax, Shostakovich deploys his percussion, though it's the widely-spaced parallel woodwind writing at the beginning that is the most striking feature of the scoring. Even this, though, is out-struck by the by the remarkable whimpering ending, assailed as the singer is by ferocious orchestral thuds.
7. The Song of Misery. A very characteristic violin solo runs throughout much of this otherwise highly Mussorgsky-like tragicomic song for the tenor, where folk-like and romance-like passages sit side by side.
8. Winter. This is the first trio - and a stunning song, with more vivid tone-painting by the orchestra. The tenor sings the song's sad burden. The women then join him, first to imitate (wordlessly) the winter winds, then to bring the song to a rather Puccini-like climax (thrilling!).
9. A Good Life. After Winter comes Spring, and in the three final songs Shostakovich turns to happier thoughts, as a good Soviet artist had to do at the time - or else! This first one is a tenor solo and sounds very unlike the Shostakovich we know. In fact it sounds much more like Rimsky-Korsakov - a lyrical aria from 19th Century Russian opera - and, though it may be a pastiche, it's a cracking song!
10. The Young Girl's Song. This delightful soprano song begins in folk-like style with a perky wind accompaniment but, as the girl's thoughts turn to more adult things, romantic strings enter and bring with them romance-style writing.
11. Happiness. "Oh, how happy are we to be Jewish in Stalin's Russia!" is the sentiment in this final trio! Or is it? As so often with Shostakovich, who knew how to put on a poker face, it's hard to be sure. It certainly sounds ironic to me. It's another delightful number, whatever, with its heavy oompahing accompaniment and a broad folk-style melody.
I can't recommend From Jewish Folk Poetry strongly enough. Please try it out.