Mussorgsky: Songs and Dances of Death; The Nursery; Sunless; Hebrew Song; The Song of the Flea

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Mussorgsky
LABELS: Sony
WORKS: Songs and Dances of Death; The Nursery; Sunless; Hebrew Song; The Song of the Flea
PERFORMER: Marjana Lipovsek (mezzo-soprano), Graham Johnson (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: SK 66858
Of all Mussorgsky’s song cycles, The Nursery is the one most associated with the female voice, so it makes sense that Marjana Lipovsek chooses it to start this recital. And her account is outstanding. There is none of the coyness or false childishness that so often mars it; no awkwardly affected differentiation between the child narrator’s and nanny’s voices. Instead she plays inventively, and to dazzling effect, on the songs’ percussiveness, stressing syllables for sound as much as meaning.

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She is less convincing in the Songs and Dances of Death. Technically her performance is flawless: her phrasing is superb, her characterisation detailed, and her voice has the glorious guttural quality of a true Slav. But the chill and terror that really make these songs transfixing is missing. Graham Johnson, however, makes magnificent work of the piano part. Richly atmospheric and shimmeringly ominous, his playing seems to render orchestral versions redundant by comparison.

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Of the rarer pieces here, the cycle Sunless, prescient in its austerity and eery disjointedness, is beautifully presented. And the final ‘Gopak’ makes a terrific encore. Claire Wrathall