Russian culture – and therefore music – underwent a period of uncertainty with regard to its European neighbours; would it allow itself to be influenced by prevailing ‘Western’ trends or not? Would Russian composers keep their beloved folksongs at the heart of their writing, or would they adopt the more symphonic developments of their neighbours to the West?
Thursday night’s concert of songs by three great Russian composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries demonstrated this duality to the full. The folksong tradition of ‘The Mighty Handful’ was displayed through the songs of Modest Mussorgsky; even their titles told us their strong heartland origins: Gopak; Eremushka’s lullaby; Hebrew song; The goat. This is music of blood and bone, of the peasantry and the countryside – it may be about birds or gypsies or Cossack lovers, but it has an uncomfortable side, an ‘otherness’ where ravens peck at corpses, and Baba Yaga’s hut on legs is never very far away through the trees. By contrast, the songs of Tchaikovsky, although full of emotion, are nonetheless obviously salon pieces, heavily influenced by the musical fashions in Paris and Berlin; emotion was served as part of a ‘prescribed’ milieu – lost love in We sat together or To forget so soon, or found love in The fires in the room were already out. It was left to Sergey Rachmaninov to fuse the two traditions, and the selection of songs, including the gloriously powerful In the silence of the secret night, On the death of a siskin, and Spring waters gave the audience ample satisfaction through the perfect balance of heart and head.
Semenchuk displayed a prodigious vocal talent for delivering all of the nuances described above, from girlish and flirty to womanly and seductive. Her voice moved through a sweet and liquid mid-range, to a bright clear top that had, at times, the undamped strings of the piano sounding with sympathetic harmonics. She was equally at home with the precise, elegant delivery of Tchaikovsky’s Chopin-inspired It was early spring, the whispered scherzo quality of If only I had known (by the same composer), the chatty peasant quality of Mussorgsky’s Gopak, the ‘pecking’ tone of Mussorgskys The magpie, and the grand lyric character of Rachmaninov’s Christ has risen. Perhaps the most impressive contrasting pair of songs were both by Rachmaninov – Semenchuk gave us firstly a peerless exercise in chest voice in She is as lovely as the moon and then demonstrated perfect control of her high notes in Sing not to me, beautiful maiden.
Helmut Deutsch is a long-established master of accompanying song, and his perfect unison with Semenchuk’s voice was a joy to listen to, from the running, Schubertian piano passages of On the death of a siskin to the more sinister ostinati in some of the Musorgsky songs.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.