Mussorgsky: Songs and Dances of Death; The Nursery; The Puppet-Show

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Mussorgsky
LABELS: Conifer
WORKS: Songs and Dances of Death; The Nursery; The Puppet-Show
PERFORMER: Sergei Leiferkus (baritone)Semion Skigin (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 75605 51229 2 DDD
Sergei Leiferkus has a fine and distinctive baritone, but what makes him a truly exceptional singer is his formidable talent as an actor, and never has this been more persuasively captured on record than here. From his electrifying and chilling interpretation of Songs and Dances of Death, in which, as Death, he assumes four very different guises (vindictive, romantic, seductive and bellicose), to the bright, faux-naïf songs of The Nursery, where, with no sense of awkwardness, he affects an improbably high but convincingly childlike voice, rattling off the silly ‘ta-ta-ta-ta’s of ‘Hobby-Horse’ with aplomb, then slipping seamlessly into the familiar adult tone of the nanny or parent, he demonstrates daunting versatility. A further six songs – ‘Seminarist’, ‘Darling Savishna’ among them – complete the disc, mostly familiar works, but also the extraordinary satire The Puppet-Show.

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The only obvious advantage the Danish bass-baritone Aage Haugland’s three-disc set (ostensibly the complete songs, though it omits Puppet-Show) has over the Leiferkus recital is that the whole oeuvre can be heard at once (Leiferkus is recording the rest of Mussorgsky’s songs, but we will have to wait). There is nothing intrinsically wrong with Haugland’s performance; he has a robust and attractive voice and impeccable musical sense, but there is a muddiness about his diction and a reticence when it comes to dramatising the texts – and the drama is crucial – that makes it ultimately disappointing, at least when compared with the competition. Claire Wrathall