Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Moderate Mussorgsky, Modest Schumann, Messiah

Squirrels hoard nuts to see them through winter. I go out in early December so I won't get withdrawal symptoms during the musical drought over the holidays. So sometimes I hoard more than I should.

Sergei Leiferkus can be very good indeed. A few years ago he did an excellent programme of Shostakovich satirical songs which had the predominantly Russian speaking audience cracking up with delight. They didn't need texts to get the wry humour! Leiferkus is a vividly expressive singer, who can get his message across even if you don't speak Russian. Even on recordings, he sounds animated, drawing you into the story.

Mussorgsky is another of Leiferkus's specialities, so I was looking forward to hearing him sing The Songs and Dances of Death at the Wigmore Hall. He delivered well, appreciating that full force isn't necessarily the way to do horror. The cycle starts with a lullaby, but the baby is dead. In Trepak, a drunken peasant is lulled into falling asleep in the snow: he'll never wake again. So when the Field Marshal appears, he's come to harvest dead soldiers. Leiferkus chose a moderate approach, though its dramatic impact may have been lost on those unfamiliar with the cycle. Only with the last songs, The Seminarist and the immortal Mefistopheles's Song did Leiferkus ignite into his best mode.

Perhaps he should have gambled on an audience interested in Russian song and done a whole programme of what he does best. There's plenty of repertoire, and Leiferkus has sung most of it, from Rachmaninov to Prokofiev and more. If he did want to sing in German, he might have done better to stick to songs that lend themselves to dramatic declamation, like the zanier songs of Wolf or Loewe. His Schumann Liederkreis op 39 might have been OK elsewhere but in the Wigmore Hall echoes of exceptionally beautiful performances lie heavily on the memory. This simply wasn't his thing - odd phrasing, intonation, lack of nuance. A pity because he could have had more fun singing what he really enjoys, and given the audience good value, too.

Afterwards at dinner, I was assaulted by the sort of Xmas-themed muzak that's generated by machine. Yow! One song about "the Holy Bible", as if there's an "Unholy" Bible. So if you need escape there's a very interesting performance of Messiah on Wednesday 16th at 7.30 at St Johns Church, Downshire Hill, Hampstead NW3 1NU. It's going to be different because it's transcribed for string quintet, trumpet, organ and choir, and the soloists are good - Matthew Rose, Sophie Bevan, Andrew Staples and Catherine Hooper. Normally you'd pay more than £10 to hear them and you wouldn't get mulled wine and mince pies thrown in.

Moreover, it's in a good cause. It's been organized by Vignette Arts (it's the Vignette Choir) which is the brainchild of young professionals working in music, media, architecture & the civil service. It aims to give both financial aid and high profile performing opportunities to promising young artists. So this is a Messiah to get to if you can.

No comments: