Wednesday 12 January 2022

Panache, intensity and vivid story-telling from Claire Booth and Christopher Glynn in Modest Musorgsky: Unorthodox music at Wigmore Hall

Modest Musorgsky in around 1870
Modest Musorgsky in around 1870

Modest Musorgsky: Unorthodox music
; Claire Booth, Christopher Glynn; Wigmore Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 11 January 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A mix of well-known and lesser known songs plus piano pieces spun into a remarkable sequence that highlighted the way Musorgsky pushed and transcended boundaries

Musorgsky wrote nearly 70 songs and we just don't hear enough of them in the concert hall. So it was a great treat that soprano Claire Booth and pianist Christopher Glynn followed up their October 2021 disc on Avie, Modest Musorgsky: Unorthodox Music with a lunchtime recital at Wigmore Hall on Tuesday 11 January 2021 that mixed Musorgsky's songs with piano pieces. The programme was organised around a thematic arc of an imagined life, with sections on Nursery, Youthful Years, Marriage, and Loneliness. Songs from the great song-cycles were here, The Nursery, Songs and Dances of Death and Sunless, but also individual songs that deserve to be better known and complimentary piano solos.

In her spoken introduction, Claire Booth said that one of the surprises that came out of her and Christopher Glynn's exploration of Musorgsky's output was quite how many strong women there were in his songs (in contrast to his operas), and of course in the Russian tradition Death can be female, and indeed Musorgsky referred to his song-cycle Songs and Dances of Death as her.

There is another thing about Musorgsky's songs, even the ones best known in orchestral guise, and that is their sense of imagination, boundary-crossing freedom. Katherine Broderick and Sergey Rybin's 2016 disc of Musorgsky songs on Stone Records [see my review] made a strong case for the links between Musorgsky's song output and French impressionism, notably Debussy. It is worth re-iterating what we know, as the timeline is intriguing. 

The young Debussy 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. Musorgsky'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 Musorgsky's songs were published in the 1870s. And the Paris Conservatoire bought a copy of Musorgsky's Boris Godunuv in 1874. So, it is worth listening to these songs with new ears.

We began with a prologue, A Society Tale: The Goat (from 1867), a song to Musorgsky's own text about a young girl frightened of an ugly goat but happy to marry an elderly man who looks the same! Performed with a vivid sense of  story-telling, both Booth and Glynn ensured that the narrative drew you in.

Nursery interleaved two songs from Musorgsky's cycle, The Nursery (from 1868-1872) with piano solos from From Memories of Childhood (1865), so we had the humour of a scene with nurse and the stronger edge of the rather nasty child in In the corner who was subsequently punished (the piano solo First Punishment: Norse Shuts me in a Dark Room), ending with playing on the hobby-horse.  I always feel, in these songs, that Musorgsky gives something of an edge to the music, going well beyond charm and his depictions of the children are rarely cute. Booth caught the right tone for the child, and in the dialogues gave us some wonderfully strong characters.

Youthful Years began with the lyrical outpouring of Longing (setting Lev Mey from 1866) that really does seem to be pushing the boundaries of what a song is. The piano solo Impromptu passione (from 1859) was perhaps more salon-ish, but it led to the Heine setting, From my tears (from 1866), another lyrical outpouring with shimmering piano that seemed to pre-figure the songs of Rachmaninov. The Pushkin setting, Night (from 1868) is a terrific example of this genre. The song follows the poetry giving an improvisatory feel to the piece, very free in its form with long unfolding vocal lines and again a shimmering piano.

But Marriage certainly does not go well. Hopak (from 1868) is a song from a woman married to an unsatisfactory man, and she goes off to the inn to flirt and enjoy herself; strong character vividly etched, with lots and lots of words delivered with striking panache. Oh, how your eyes look at me sometimes (from 1866) was another lyrical outpouring, again free in its form and this section culminated in the terrific (and terrifying) Trepak from Songs and Dances of Death (1875-7).  The poems for the cycle are by Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov (Musorgsky's cousin), and it seems that the cycle was intended to be longer. Here we had a dark, mysterious opening, its intensity leading to the sinister dance of the main section full of Glynn's vivid piano playing.

The final section was Loneliness, this woman does not die well; unsurprising really as the two final songs come from Musorgsky's cycle Sunless (1874), again with poems by Golenishchev-Kutuzov. First, The leaves rustled sadly (from 1859, revised 1863-66); darkly atmospheric, this was a slow, intense invocation and the eerie atmosphere continued with Cum mortuis in lingua mortua from Pictures from an Exhibition (from 1874). The final two songs were from Sunless. First, Within four walls, the very free vocal line complemented by a piano that simply colours and supports, creating intense bleakness. Then the darkly atmospheric On the river with its almost seductive piano texture; a strange and compelling song that Booth made really hypnotic. The mood was continued with the final item, the piano solo Reverie (1865).

This was the sort of exploration of Musorgsky's songs that made you wonder why we don't hear them more often. One answer is perhaps in the texts, and Claire Booth did a superb job in the more challenging tongue twisters, whilst always relishing the way Musorgsky treats the language. Aided and abetted by Christopher Glynn's vivid piano playing, this was an hour spent in striking company.

We were treated two an encore, another strong woman, this time Oh you drunken good for nothing. a vivid tirade of words all spat out superbly.

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