In a special event at the Medgyaszay Hall of the Hungarian State Opera, Papageno presented a performance of Shostakovichs late masterpiece by the Juilliard-trained American bass Andrew Munn with the pianist Bálint Zsoldos on May 8, 2023.
“There is truth in old sayings.” These words, intoned in austere pseudo-melody, open Dmitri Shostakovich’s Suite on Verses by Michelanglo as if declaring the truth of the eleven poems to follow. Composed in 1974, the Shostakovich turned to the philosophical, sensuous, and at times political sonnets of Michelangelo to create a song cycle that meditates on art, love, legacy, and mortality. Charactaristic of Shostakovich’s late style, the music is sparse, on first hearing one might even say opaque or barren. The piano rarely offers harmonies, but moves in slowly shifting octaves, perfect fifths, and whisps of melody, in a distinctly modernist evocation of the ancient.
The music appears to have the elemental opacity of an unsculpted stone block, from which the voice must use the words of Michelangelo to carve both meaning and beauty. Munn did both, singing the demanding work from memory. His lyric bass led the audience through Michelangelo’s poems and Shostakovich’s music in a performance with the emotional and intellectual depth the work reqires.
The closing lines of No. 8 Creativity encapsulate the challenge in which Munn and Zsoldos succeeded: of giving shape to stone, and uncovering the music’s inner tension and beauty. “I am paralyzed by the untouched stone, until the divine craftsman lends me aid, and animates my full-bodied strike.” Michelangelo’s hammer answers without ambiguity.