Russian Songs
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)

Mephistopheles's Song in Auerbach's Cellar (Song of the Flea) [3:08]
A Society Tale (The Goat) [2:21]
Mischief [2:02]
The Seminarist [4:09]
Songs and Dances of Death (Lullaby; Serenade; Trepak; The Field Marshal) [17:36]
César CUI (1835-1918)
The Statue at Tzarskoye Selo , No.17 from 25 Poems by Pushkin, Op.57 [1:04]
Thou And You, No.11 from 25 Poems by Pushkin, Op.57[1:09]
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
The Prophet, No.2 from Two Songs, Op.49 [4:12]
In the Quiet of the Night, No.3 from Four Songs, Op.40 [1:47]
Upon the Georgian Hills, No.4 from Four Songs, Op.3 [2:30]
The Rainy Day Has Waned, No.5 from Five Songs, Op.51 [4:36]
Miliy BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Barcarolle [1:35]
When I Hear Your Voice [1:21]
The Keep Calling Me A Fool [1:23]
Hebrew Melody [2:11]
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
The Miraculous Garden [2:10]
The False Note [0:40]
From My Tears [0:53]
Song of the Dark Forest [2:12]
Mikhail Svetlov (bass)
Pavlina Dokovska (piano)
rec. March 2009, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York. DDD
No texts or translations included – but they can be downloaded from Naxos site.
NAXOS 8.572218 [56:37]

The group of nationalistic Russian composers led by Balakirev is known under the name The Mighty Handful or The Mighty Five. These are magnanimous translations: a more correct one would be “mighty little pile” or “mighty little heap”. Yes, in Russian it sounds funny.

The present album contains songs written by these five composers. Their styles have much in common – after all, they were united by the epoch and the goals. On the other hand, we can perceive the dissimilarity of their characters. What could be more different than down-to-earth, histrionic songs of Mussorgsky versus introvert, restrained ones by Borodin? Balakirev is didactic, Cui is placid, and Rimsky-Korsakov is trying to be monumental – just as they are in bigger genres. So what we have here is a mosaic gallery where small pieces add up to create portraits.

Russian basses were always famous, and Mikhail Svetlov continues the glorious tradition of Chaliapin, Reizen and Nesterenko. A soloist in the Bolshoi Theatre for more than a decade, he seems to be better suited to the more theatrical creations of Mussorgsky and Balakirev than to the more intimate works of the other three. His Mussorgsky is really special. Some of these songs would not have such impact if sung by a different voice type. For example, The Song of the Flea, with its sinister ha-ha-ha, has a real Mephisto glint. There is voice theatre in every word. Svetlov applies different colors in different songs. A Society Tale and The Seminarist are great fun, especially if you follow the text closely. He also has excellent diction, which is important in tongue-twisting songs like Mischief. A distinguishing trait of Mussorgsky’s songs is that the intonations are very natural – it’s almost verismo.

The four Songs and Dances of Death are very different between themselves in character and intensity, and it is not easy for one singer to excel in them all. Svetlov’s Lullaby is not as personal and therefore not as terrifying as it could be: it seems to be too operatic. The same operatic approach is in Serenade – as a result, Death is not as much seducing the sick girl, as already celebrating the victory. Svetlov’s Trepak is very intense, the colors are thick: Death is giving orders, not playing with the victim. Finally, we arrive at The Field Marshal, where Death is mustering the fallen warriors. Here Svetlov’s intense delivery really works – but now, after he did it in other songs, the effect is not as overwhelming as it could be. Svetlov’s bass here projects great power, it receives a metallic edge: this is the trombone voice, the cast iron. Overall, the performance of the cycle is strong and solid.

The songs of other composers on this disc are much closer to standard salon romances. In their long shaded notes Svetlov’s voice is occasionally unstable, and sometimes it seems that a baritone would have been a better choice. Apparently, his stronger side is characteristic singing, not delicate nuance. César Cui is represented by two miniatures on Pushkin’s verses, each one a minute long. They are elegant and nice, but nothing more. In mood and style they are not far from Gremin’s aria from Eugene Onegin.

The first song by Rimsky-Korsakov is also on the text by Pushkin. It describes the process of turning a man into a prophet. The music adds little to the effect of the poem. Maybe it even diminishes it, due to the regularity and predictability. The voice part is a bit square, but the piano accompaniment is very graphic in depicting what’s happening. In the Quiet of the Night is a standard romance, like many songs of Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov. Upon the Georgian Hills has a well-wrapped, beautiful Caucasian melody, but Svetlov’s vibrato annoys. The Rainy Day Has Waned is non-standard, and resembles a choral prelude by Bach. All the feelings, all the underlying currents of the emotion are expressed by the liquid piano, while the voice part is restrained, almost indifferent. In this story much is said between the lines. Svetlov gives a passionate yet reserved account.

Balakirev’s Barcarolle is strophic, with a lilting Neapolitan flavor. When I Hear Your Voice is an expression of love, shy and sentimental. The Fool has a Russian folk character; the accompaniment depicts the quick flow of the river which the hero addresses. Byronic lyrics of Hebrew Melody are concentrated Romanticism. The accompaniment is dense, with oriental elements. The result is heavy-handed, and in the end you’ll probably better remember the accompaniment than the melody.

Borodin’s songs leave a strange feeling of incompletion. The Miraculous Garden starts promisingly, with atmospheric ripples and slow, enchanted oscillations – but Svetlov’s voice is too heavy for it, and all his deep, round O-s bring incongruity into the picture. The aftertaste is not pleasant. The next two miniatures are curious chunks that seem more like half-songs or even half-verses. Each has one little musical idea: it’s done and it’s gone. Song of the Dark Forest reminds us that Borodin was the author of Prince Igor and the Bogatyr Symphony (No. 2). It is written in Russian folk style, as if an opening to an epic narration. The piano part is extremely low, creating a dark and powerful atmosphere.

The booklet contains an interesting and well-structured essay about the composers and the songs. The texts themselves are not included, but you can see them on the Naxos site, in Russian transliteration and English translation. The recording balance is not ideal: Svetlov’s voice eclipses the piano, which is placed too far in the background. The contribution of Pavlina Dokovska is excellent. She is sensitive to the lyrics, and supportive to the soloist. In the Songs and Dances of Death, her playing is really impressive.

Oleg Ledeniov

Svetlov brings his opera experience into the songs, which is especially beneficial for Mussorgsky.