With just a piano at its centre, the Barbican stage is a vast wooden expanse for the recitalist to dominate. Russian mezzo Olga Borodina is far too experienced to be daunted by such a performing space, which she commanded without ever leaving the arc of the piano, against which she frequently rested. Refreshingly, this recital wasn’t to plug a freshly released CD; Borodina has recorded the songs by the Mighty Handful programmed for the first half of this recital, but that was some fifteen years ago now; indeed the disc is no longer officially available. Despite treading a familiar path, there was nothing at all stale about her performance, which revealed her plush mezzo still in extremely fine form. Accompanied by Dmitri Yefimov, who also partnered her in the same programme at Carnegie Hall last year, Borodina gave an absolute masterclass in the Russian romance.
In his engaging programme note, Christopher Cook muses on the power of Russian song, citing the recent example of Katya, the Russian prisoner in Auschwitz in Weinberg’s opera The Passenger, who sings an unaccompanied folksong which almost stops the show. A similar moment occurs in Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride, when Lyubasha, a mezzo, launches into a song in Act I. Russian songs manage to plumb the soul to an extent that they readily speak to audiences in a far deeper way than German Lieder or French chansons, at least to these ears.
Driven by self-appointed leader Mily Balakirev, the Mighty Handful was a group of composers, some self-taught, who conspired to build a national musical style, promoting Russian music based on traditional Russian melodies rather than following western examples. Some of them lead double lives; Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was a naval officer, César Cui was in the army, while Alexander Borodin was renowned as a chemist. Famed for their operas or large scale orchestral works, nevertheless between them, they wrote over 500 songs, from which Borodina selected a dozen to occupy the first half of the programme.
A quartet of Rimsky-Korsakov songs opened proceedings, revealing Borodina’s imperious, plush chest notes in full working order. Her statuesque presence, almost unmoving at the piano, meant that the acting came entirely with her voice. ‘In the still of night’ was a gentle opening before the rustling piano figures which begin ‘Twas not the wind’ evokes the poet’s soul touched by love as the leaves are touched by the wind. ‘The clouds begin to scatter’, one of Rimsky’s best-known romances, was the first of four Pushkin settings heard during the evening, Borodina’s long phrases reaches ever further across Rimsky’s bar-lines, while ‘The lark sings louder’ allowed her to rattle off some faster music.
César Cui is best remembered – if at all – for his collection of songs. Of the three on offer here, the most memorable was ‘The Fountain Statue at Tsarskoye Selo’, telling of a girl who dropped a pitcher of water, which broke; as the girl sits contemplating the broken jug, the waters pour endlessly from it – a miracle. The rippling piano accompaniment here was a delight, as were Borodina’s floated high pianissimos in ‘I touched the bloom lightly’.
Modest Mussorgsky’s song cycles Sunless and Songs and Dances of Death sometimes obscure his ‘non-cyclical’ work. ‘Night’ is one of the composer’s best early songs; the piano part is very delicate, almost Debussy-like, conjuring up sounds of balalaikas and bells, while Borodina fully encompassed the passionate emotional message of the song.
The highlight of the first half was Borodin’s song ‘The Sea Princess’, written to his own text, which evokes the world of rusalkas (Rimsky’s Sadko is another Russian example, as is Dargomyzhsky’s Rusalka) as she lures the traveller to a watery grave. The gently rocking piano accompaniment entranced this listener, as did the simplicity and sincerity of Borodina’s delivery, which was very touching.
Balakirev, teacher and leader of the group, was represented by ‘The Crescent Moon’, as the poet awaits her lover for a clandestine tryst by moonlight. This was followed by ‘Spanish Song’, a tribute to Glinka, whose intoxicating Spanish rhythms littered several of his orchestral works, then ‘I loved him’, all beautifully sung.
The second half of the programme moved us into the 20th century, with a cycle of six songs by Shostakovich, the Spanish Songs op.100. These gave Borodina the opportunity to characterise strongly, the opening song, ‘Farewell Granada!’ full of gypsy ululations. ‘Little Stars’ was done with full regard for the humour behind the tale of the poet teaching her sweetheart songs, taking payment by kisses. ‘First Meeting’ struck me as the best song, well-structured, with faster inner sections.
Georgy Sviridov, a pupil of Shostakovich, is only known to me through his cycle Russia cast adrift, but rather than present another cycle (it does contain twelve songs), Borodina chose three songs from Romances to Words by Alexander Pushkin, from the bleak sparseness of ‘The Crimson Forest’ to the bravura swirling mists of ‘A Winter’s Road’ and ‘Drawing near to Izhory’. Russia cast adrift was represented by the fifth song, which gives the cycle its title, full of lovely effects, imitating the crying flight of geese and allowing Borodina to display her great legato again. It was noticeable that the top of her voice can harden ever so slightly under pressure, but the warmth of her lower register is astonishingly rich.
The audience response was vociferous in its response, though I could have done without applause after every item – what happened to applauding a set of songs? They were rewarded with a couple of encores, the second of which drew on the Spanish theme of the Shostakovich and Balakirev earlier in the evening, with ‘Nana’ from Manuel de Falla’s 7 canciones populares espagnolas, a haunting lullaby with which to take her leave.