When Shostakovich set six poems by Marina Tsvetayeva for voice and piano in 1973, he completed a chain of human suffering in which he himself was final link.
Worn down by relentless persecution from the Soviet authorities, he had had two heart attacks and had lung cancer diagnosed. Marina Tsvetayeva had endured a terrible life, before she took her own in despair in 1941: one of her daughters had died of malnutrition during food shortages after the Bolshevik revolution, and her other daughter was sent to a labour camp; her husband was shot. Meanwhile, one of the poems Shostakovich chose to set celebrated Tsvetayeva’s fellow-poet Anna Akhamtova, whose own husband had been shot, with her son being interned in Siberia; she lived to see herself politically rehabilitated, but spent much of her life chronicling the atrocities going on round her. And this chain went back further, with poems raging against the brutality of Tsar Nicholas I, and likening the furtive burial of one of his victims to that of Sir John Moore after Corunna.
Christianne Stotjin – who burst into the Wigmore like a biker on holiday - is a mezzo who spares no effort in the service of music and text. But Shostakovich’s curiously introverted music tested even her formidable powers of projection. The first song – a desolate plaint from a poet shunned by society – had an uneasy gait made doubly so by the piano’s bare and angular line; the second, ‘Whence such tenderness’, hymned with wan wonderment the unexpected attentions of a beautiful youth; Stotjin used the cavernous harmonies of the third, ‘Hamlet’s dialogue with his conscience’, to evoke the horror of Ophelia’s submerged corpse. Only with ‘The poet and the Tsar’ did she really open her lungs, as the piano ironically reprised the triumphalism of Mussorgsky’s ‘Gate of Kiev’ to damn the whole great sweep of Russian history. Shostakovich’s grave setting of the poem to Akhmatova drew a majestic response from Stotjin, which her pianist Julius Drake matched to perfection.
The rest of this programme – to be rebroadcast on Saturday on Radio 3 - consisted of Tchaikovsky songs, and was glorious. Perennial favourites like ‘None but the lonely heart’ were offset by less familiar love-songs, with Stotjin calibrating her excitingly combustible sound with consummate subtlety.