Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Rachmaninov Song Series review – art songs from 19th and 20th century Russia

17 January 2024

Soprano Kristina Mkhitaryan and baritone Andrey Zhilikhovsky explore the broad compass of Russian song with Iain Burnside (piano) and Michael Foyle (violin).

Kristina Mkhitaryan (Photo: Diana Guledani)

Russia (or, for a while, the Soviet Union) is a big place, and while the 19th century saw its composers look westwards for their musical influences, the hints of the varied cultures across the vast country (bordering China in the east, and the Islamic nations to the south) shine through in the little tropes that find their way into the more staid traditions of art song of both the 19th and 20th centuries. Even Rachmaninov, arguably the most ‘westernised’ Russian Romantic, recognised this when he stated that “…the peasant music of the Caucasus and the Crimea… are hardly Russian at all”. In Wednesday evening’s Wigmore Hall concert, the two mighty voices of Russian-born Kristina Mkhitaryan and Moldovan-born Andrey Zhilikhovsky demonstrated this amply, giving some fine interpretations of not only Rachmaninov’s gorgeously intense, distinctly Slavic, songs, but also Azerbaijani influenced songs from Reinhold Glière, settings by Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov of works by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, songs with a Germanic lilt by Nicolas Medtner and melodies with an Armenian character from Aleksandr Spendiarov.

‘Mighty’ was chosen deliberately in the preceding paragraph, as each of the two singers, on several occasions, filled the hall with notes of such power that they were almost (but not quite) too loud to bear, and certainly got the blood pumping on this coldest (so far) night of 2024. The volume, though, was under full control in both cases, and the various dynamics required to express tenderness, insouciance, brooding, mystery and deep sorrow (of course – this was Russian music) across the 25 songs were also there in abundance.

Mkhitaryan’s voice is gorgeously rich and creamy throughout her range from the throbbing chest notes we heard in Ippolitov-Ivanov’s ‘Do not leave me without saying farewell’ to the floated notes above the stave (Rachmaninov’s ‘They answered’ and ‘Here it’s so fine’). She summoned, with perfect judgement of timbre and dynamic, the motherly passion of Glière’s ‘Awake my child’, the quiet intensity of Rachmaninov’s ‘Sleep’, the lush poignancy of Ippolitov-Ivanov’s ‘Hands cling to hands’, the stoicism of the same composer’s ‘Georgia’ (ending with the sweetest of smiled notes) and the wandering discomfort of Spendiarov’s ‘Lullaby’.

“…each of the two singers, on several occasions, filled the hall with notes of such power that they were almost (but not quite) too loud…”


Andrey Zhilikhovsky (Photo: Artamonov Timur)

Zhilikhovsky’s delivery was no less flexible. There’s an astonishing sonority to his voice that really resounds in his mid range, such that the louder portions of his opening song, Rachmaninov’s ‘In the silence of the secret night’ seemed to occupy the whole auditorium, and the big staccato statements at the close of Glière’s ‘Waves, who stopped you in your tracks’ almost pushed you back into your seat. Again, though, the ability to summon different moods was there: the almost parlando  opening of Glière’s ‘Twilight’; the gentle lyricism of Rachmaninov’s ‘She is as beautiful as midday’; the spooky close of Medtner’s ‘Echo’, the still solemnity of Glière’s ‘Atlas’ and the middle section of Spendiarov’s ‘Ozymandias’. Above the stave, he produced some lovely floated notes, but sometimes the transition across the passaggio to these wasn’t quite as clean and controlled as it might be.

Also to be mentioned was the excellent physical communication skills both singers deployed; each always displayed, through gesture and stance, their absorption of the text, whether it was Mkhitaryan hugging her sorrow to herself in Medtner’s sad little ‘Waltz’, or Zhilikhovsky’s expansively wide arms, holding up the heavens in ‘Atlas’.

Iain Burnside accompanied all of the songs, and, as ever, his technique and intuitive understanding of the singers was first-class. His moments in the sun came from not just some of the Nachspiele (the thunderous final chords of ‘Atlas’, for example), but from the excellent piano writing (of course, from composers such as Medtner and Rachmaninov) within the works. Rachmaninov’s ‘Sleep’ has an almost Impressionist quality to it, and Burnside brought out its Debussian ripples to perfection; the busy, complex rolling accompaniment to Medtner’s ‘Day and Night’ was beautifully realised.

Some of the items in the second half also involved violin obbligati, which Michael Foyle performed with casual brilliance; noteworthy here was Spendiarov’s ‘Lullaby’; as mentioned above, it’s an uncomfortable work, hinting at poverty and possible racial inequality, and to accentuate this, Foyle wandered around the stage playing the sad little violin tune, hinting at the hovering spectre of starvation.

Passion and profundity on a chilly night: how very Russian.

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