LABELS: Opus 111
WORKS: Songs and Dances of Death; Marfa’s Song from ‘Khovanshchina’
PERFORMER: Lina Mkrtchian (contralto), Evgeny Talisman (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: OPS 30-235
Traditionally Mussorgsky’s great song cycle has tended to be sung by men. But there’s no logical reason for this, for the female characterisation in the narratives of three of these four songs is the stronger. In the first, ‘Lullaby’, a mother confronts the figure of death who has come for her baby; in ‘Serenade’, an ailing girl is seduced by Death; and in ‘Trepak’, Death is a witch come to taunt an old drunk. Irmgard Seefried, Larissa Diadkova, Olga Borodina and Marjana Lipovsek (who recorded them in 1996) have all sung these songs to acclaim, so Lina Mkrtchyan’s decision to perform them should not be seen as unusual.
This Ukrainian-born Armenian contralto has an extraordinary and unusual voice: velvety, guttural, impossibly deep, but rising to a finely modulated top. Her style is also strikingly old-school Slavonic in a way that makes one almost nostalgic for the pre-Gergiev era. But what once seemed distinctive (her first recital of Glinka songs was among the best debuts of last year) has evolved into something that, here, is frankly peculiar: a strange contrived sound like wind caught in a chimney, lugubrious, painfully slow, swallowed, swooping and forced. Almost every other recording of this work is preferable, but arguably the best is Hvorostovsky’s (with Gergiev conducting Shostakovich’s orchestration) for sheer expressiveness and gorgeousness of tone. If you’d rather have the original piano accompaniment, then Leiferkus’s incisive and powerfully dramatic account is hard to beat.
Mkrtchyan sounds more at ease in Sviridov’s song cycle Russia Cast Adrift. It’s more surprising that Sviridov, who died last year, was a pupil of Shostakovich than that he enjoyed the patronage of the Soviet Establishment, for his music is backward-looking, richly melodic and, in spite of a few token dissonances, easy on the ear. But again, Mkrtchyan is up against Hvorostovsky, and his account is altogether more impressive. Claire Wrathall