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Sphinx (Hamish McLaren)

Hamish McLaren (countertenor), Matthew Jorysz (piano) et al (Orchid Classics)

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

Songs by Borodin, E Firsova, Myaskovsky, Shostakovich, S Taneyev and B Tchaikovsky
Hamish McLaren (countertenor), Claudia Fuller (violin), Nathalie Green-Buckley (viola), Ben Michaels (cello), Matthew Jorysz (piano)
Orchid Classics ORC 100161   76:31 mins


A huge range of musical discoveries is offered by this recital – but be warned, it is a long, dark journey. It opens bleakly with songs by Boris Tchaikovsky (Shostakovich’s student, a prodigy widely known for his film music), and includes Shostakovich himself, Borodin, Taneyev, Myaskovsky and the living composer Elena Firsova. These figures were attracted to an outstanding range of poetry, which adds much interest.

Hamish McLaren’s rich and sombre voice is perfectly suited to this heart-on-sleeve pathos, but I longed for a greater colouristic range and more exploitation of the luxurious tangle of sounds which characterise Russian. The accompaniments are sensitively tackled by Matthew Jorysz and the other musicians.

Although the discovery of these songs is commendably adventurous, the unvaryingly bleak recital encapsulates what the liner notes call the ‘dark, paranoid years of late Stalinism’, even though some songs date from much earlier. Thorny, tormented, heart-rending – only brief relief is offered by some jauntier numbers in Shostakovich’s Spanish Songs. The songs of Elena Firsova were new to me, but oh so tragic! Her original, introspective ‘Twilight’ is memorably performed. Her ‘Winter Elegy’, which closes the recording, continues the theme of despair and desolation.

The songs of landscape are similar; Taneyev hardly lifts the mood with ‘A Night in the Scottish Highlands’; Tchaikovsky’s ‘Autumn’ and ‘The Pine’ are superb but desolate. By the time I reached Myaskovsky’s fabulously depressing ‘Albatross’, I wondered whether the recording should bear a health warning. This feast of Slavic gloom is best consumed in small doses.


Natasha Loges