Sunday 17 January 2016

Russian impressionism: Mussorgsky - Songs and Romances

Mussorgsky: Songs and Romances - Stone Records
Mussorgsky Songs and Romances; Katherine Broderick, Sergey Rybin; Stone Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 13 2016
Star rating: 5.0

Two major cycles and a group of songs in a programme which links Mussorgsky's style to the later French impressionist composers

Most people, I suspect, first encounter Modest Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death in the orchestral version with the solo part sung by a man. On this new disc from Stone Records, Mussorgsky Songs and Romances, the solo is sung by soprano Katherine Broderick and she is accompanied by Sergey Rybin on the piano.They perform not only Songs and Dances of Death but Mussorgsky's cycle Sunless as well as a group of Mussorgsky's songs. And the recital deliberately sets out to intrigue us with the at times almost Debussy-esque musical impressionism of the music, particularly the piano writing. Except of course Mussorgsky got there first.

The links between Debussy and Russian music are intriguing. The young Frenchman spent the summers of 1880, 1881 and 1882 touring Europe with Tchaikovsky's patron Nadezhda von Meck, acting as teacher and pianist for her daughters. Mussorgsky's cycle Sunless was finished in 1874 and published that year, whilst Songs and Dances of Death was finished in 1875 but not published until 1882, though a number of Mussorgsky's songs were published in the 1870. And the Paris Conservatoire bought a copy of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunuv in 1874. So listening to these songs with new ears, it makes you wonder. I remember hearing a story about someone taking an Ivor Novello song and playing it slowly and making people think it was Brahms. If Katherine Broderick sang some of these songs in French, who would we think they were by?
Katherine Broderick and Sergey Rybin open with Night setting a poem by Pushkin, in which Mussorgsky creates a delicate web of piano sound that can only be called impressionistic, using this to accompany a vocal line which is rather flexible recitative. Broderick sings with a lovely sense of shape and controlled passion. By contrast Gathering Mushrooms (setting Lev Mei) is a wonderfully perky dance. Rybin bring a delicate shimmer to the accompaniment in Desire (setting Mikhail Mikhailov's poem after Heinrich Heine),  with a sense of the piano wandering round the flexible vocal line.

Darling Savishna (setting a text of Mussorgsky's own) is a little scene in its own right, and the performers bring a lovely sense of character to the piece, using Mussorgsky's uneven rhythms to great effect. Hebrew Song (setting Lev Mei) is a darkly haunting lament, whilst Tell me why, beautiful maiden combines the haunting lyricism of the vocal line with fluidly colouristic piano writing, beautifully realised by Rybin.

Apparition (setting a poem by Mussorgsky's cousin, Arseny Golenischev-Kutuzov) starts off spare and evocative before becoming more urgent, again, with a lovely sense of shimmer as the poet describes the apparition. Where are you, little star? (setting Nikolay Grekov) has a lovely yearning cantilena, sounding rather exotic, over a relatively simple accompaniment.

The cycle Sunless sets poems by Arseny Golenischev-Kutuzov and the depressive nature of the texts seems almost to reflect Mussorgsky's state of mind when he was writing. Within four walls seems to offer just a little hope within the bleakness.  You have not recognised me in the crowd is rather stark and certainly not a showy song, yet it is full of magic with Mussorgsky's evocative use of piano sonorities. Over is the idle and clamorous day gives you an enormous sense of control from both performers and composer. Mussorgsky doesn't try to do too much, yet the colours in the piano and voice create the sense of his depression. Be bored has a sombre gravity to it, offset by the harmonies in the music. Elegy has the most amazing shimmering harmonies evoking the mist of the poet's description, but the music is certainly not completely comfortable. And when the piece becomes more dramatic, Mussorgsky's music wanders into some amazing tonalities. The final song in the cycle, Above the river, which seems to hint at suicide, is hypnotic in its repetition yet rather subtle with again wonderful impressionistic evocations in the piano.

Songs and Dances of Death (again to poems by Arseny Golenischev-Kutuzov) seems to have been intended to be rather longer, but Mussorgsky only wrote four songs. Whilst having them sung by a woman might seem unusual given the modern tradition for male voiced performance, it is worth bearing in mind that in Russian death is female and Mussorgsky referred to the song cycle as her. Certainly the performances by Katherine Broderick and Sergey Rybin need no excuses and from the very opening notes their performance grips.

Lullaby is transparent and spare, in a performance full of character with the softly sympathetic death contrasting with the anxious narration. Serenade is again full of magical impressionism in the piano,
with a serenade from Broderick which is by turns silkily passionate and disturbing. Trepak starts with a vivid picture of the forest glade, and then we get the toe-tapping slow build of the dance haunting and sinister. Finally the bravura Field-marshal where the opening depiction of the battle is replaced by the chillingly grim picture of Death as the ultimate field-marshal. I have heard Katherine Broderick sing this last song live and certainly I do hope to encounter her and Rybin performing the whole cycle live.

Sergey Rybin's excellent article in the CD booklet brings out the links, both historical and musical, between Mussorgsky and his contemporaries and the booklet also includes full texts and translations.

This recording made me listen to Mussorgsky's songs with new ears. I was unfamiliar with many of his earlier songs, and hearing again the later ones made you marvel at what he achieved. His writing, particularly for piano, evokes so many later composers but is so much his own as well. Sergey Rybin makes a superb advocate, bringing incredible skill and subtlety to the piano writing and forming a great partnership with Katherine Broderick. Broderick sings with power and passion, but subtlety and delicacy too, showing remarkable control of her dramatic soprano voice.

There are more Mussorgsky songs, I do hope that Katherine Broderick and Sergey Rybin might go back into the studio so we can hear the rest.

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881) - Night
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881) - Gathering Mushrooms
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881) - Desire
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881) - Darling Savishna
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881) - Hebrew Song
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881) - Tell me why, dear Maiden
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881) - Apparition
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881) - Where are you, little star?
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881) - Sunless
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881) - Songs and Dances of Death
Katherine Broderick (soprano)
Sergey Rybin (piano)
Recorded 17-18 November 2014, St John the Evangelist, Oxford
STONE RECORDS 5060192780581  1CD [58.16]

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