Congenitally unable to see big projects through, Mussorgsky did, however, leave us a wealth of songs. Sixty-nine, in fact, including the three great cycles are collected here on four CDs and although this is by no means the first complete anthology, its merits, being at a bargain price and performed by native Russians of artistic distinction, are obvious. They also form CDs 11-14 of Brilliant Classics' Mussorgsky Edition (94670).
It was back in the 1950s that Boris Christoff
was the first to record the complete songs. They remain the touchstone for many collectors but modern taste tends towards hearing a composer’s original intentions and Christoff used the orchestrations for the “Songs and Dances of Death” made by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov which normalised Mussorgsky’s harmonies, just as the former’s version of “Boris Godunov” domesticated it. He was in fact the first and last to record that orchestration in that cycle; there is also a spikier orchestration by Shostakovich made in 1962 but that is still not necessarily what the composer intended.
The late Danish bass Aage Haugland
gave us a complete set with piano accompaniment in 1995 and there are numerous recordings of the most popular songs, especially ”Songs and Dances of Death” by many a great singer, going back to Chaliapin
’s mesmerising “Trepak”. With the exception of “The Nursery”, the majority of the songs here are best suited to a bass or dark baritone and one preferably a native Russian or at least Slavonic speaker if the verbal nuances and subtleties are to be brought out fully. In addition to Christoff’s recordings, amongst the most recommendable are versions by basses Nesterenko, Kotcherga, Borg, Talvela
and Canadian George London, who was of Russian-Jewish origin. Amongst highly recommendable recordings by women of “Songs and Dances of Death” are those by Vishnevskaya
, Arkhipova and the Polish Ewa Podleś
. Baritones who have given us memorable recordings include Igor Gorin
and Dmitri Hvorostovsky
but I understand the objections of those who find their voices simply too smooth and beautiful for those harrowing songs.
Sergei Leiferkus is also a baritone and although he too can sing beautifully, his voice has a harder edge with a distinctive, Slavic ring to it, somewhat akin in tonal quality to his compatriot Yevgeny Nesterenko and he is well able to avoid sounding too comfortable and comforting. Furthermore, we cannot judge the merits of these sixty-nine songs by concentrating merely on the four which make up "Songs and Dances of Death" – although Mussorgsky in fact projected the cycle to comprise eight but true to form, never finished it.
This being mid-nineteenth century Russia, it is hardly surprising that the harsh word “smert” (“death”) predominates in the texts and that the themes of so many of the songs centre upon the sufferings of the people from poverty, disease and war. Mussorgsky is almost a counterpart to Gesualdo in the way he leans on recurring words like “tears” and “groans”. Leiferkus’s sepulchral, cutting sound lends itself best to the preponderance of dark, satirical songs which require a sense of scorn, cruelty and irony, but he can soften his tone to encompass the gentler, more Romantic songs, of which there are more as you proceed if you listen to these four discs in order.
I love the way he sings out; there is no drawing-room crooning here and he brings a firm, steady, tireless quality to songs which place great demands on the singer’s ability to combine volume with legato. You have only to listen to how, when impersonating Death in one of the four dialogues that entity has with various unfortunates, he exclaims “Te moya!” (You are mine!), to know that this is a superb voice. Yet he is also capable of great tenderness, as in the lovely ballad “Noch” (“Night”) which is as lyrical and rhapsodic as any song written by Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov, or the gentle “Prayer” which is pious without being sentimental. Songs like those, or the upbeat “The Joyous Hour” come as a surprise and a relief after so much which is sombre and melancholic.
I concede that the contrived voice Leiferkus affects to sing the seven songs of “The Nursery” will irritate some; he employs a mixture of falsetto, half-voice and a kind of Sprechstimme whine to impersonate a child in the humorous little narrative vignettes. When he reverts to his habitual booming baritone for the Nanny’s voice it is rather disconcerting, especially as he certainly sounds adult but hardly feminine. So perhaps some would prefer to hear a female singer like Teresa Berganza in that cycle; otherwise I have nothing but praise for Leiferkus’s variety of vocal colouring across an enormous range of songs.
Mussorgsky’s style of song-writing changed as it matured. He began by implementing in his music a theory which aimed at realism by aping the natural speech rhythms and inflections of Russian. This was innovative but also paradoxically rather limiting as it resulted in a rather fragmentary style. He moved to a more strophic mode which incorporated folk melody and longer melodic lines but harmonically he always remained unconventional. Scattered amongst the more mellifluous, free-flowing songs are the kind of patter numbers we recognise from his operas. The fluency of pianist Semion Skigin’s playing in combination with Leiferkus’s linguistic facility lends them real bite and drama. Skigin is fleet, sensitive and versatile, able to range effectively from the delicacy of the postlude to “Trepak” to the thunderous opening of “The Field Marshal”.
Conductor Simon Ravens has provided notes which are contextually, historically and musicologically highly informative. Full texts in transliterated Western alphabet, not Cyrillic, and translations into English are easily downloaded from the “Brilliant” label website
. There is a little misprint in the translation of “The Gallery”: “moral blow” for what should obviously read “mortal blow”. One curiosity: am I the only one who listens to “The Gallery” and keeps hearing Handel’s tune from “Judas Maccabaeus” more popularly known as the hymn “Thine be the glory”?
Mussorgsky encompasses a huge gamut of emotions in his songs, from grotesque humour, to tragic loss, to ecstatic love and the pairing here is equal to the challenge of presenting them vividly. They are by no means the best or only recommendable interpreters of these extraordinary songs but I cannot imagine anyone interested in exploring the world of Mussorgsky’s songs being disappointed in such a fine and comprehensive anthology offered so cheaply.
& recording details
Songs and Dances of Death: Lullaby, Serenade, Trepak, The Field-Marshal
The Nursery: With Nurse, In the Corner, The Beetle, With the Doll, Going to Sleep, On the Hobbyhorse, The Cat Sailor
A Society Tale - The Goat
Mephistopheles's Song in Auerbach's Cellar
rec. 11-13 August 1993
The Misunderstood One
Not Like Thunder Trouble Struck
Softly the Spirit Flew Up to Heaven
Is Spinning Man's Work? The Vision
It Scatters and Breaks
Yarema's Song on the Dnieper
From My Tears
Sunless: Within Four Walls, You Did Not Know Me in the Crowd, The Useless Noisy Day is Ended, Be bored, Elegy, On the River
rec. 26-29 April 1995
Where Art Thou Little Star? The Joyous Hour
The Leaves Rustled Sadly
I Have Many Palaces and Gardens
Tell Me Why
What Are Words of Love to You? The Winds Blow the Wild Winds
But If I Could Meet Thee Again
Dear One Why Are Thine Eyes Sometimes So Cold? Old Man's Song
The Outcast - Essay in Recitative
rec. 6-8 September 1995
Where Art Thou Little Star? Night
The Nettle Mountain
You Drunken Sot! The Orphan
A Garden Blooms by the Don
Meines Herzens Sehnsucht
Ich wollt meine Schmerzen ergossen
rec. 27-29 June 1996