A ‘Period’ Approach to Romantic Russian Music Brings Mixed Results

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Sergei Leiferkus (baritone); Chorus of the Mikhailovsky Theatre (pre-recorded); Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 15.1.2015 (CC)

Mussorgsky     Night on a Bare Mountain (original version, 1869)
Boris Godunov (original version): Coronation Scene;
Boris’ Monologue from Act II (“Clock”);
Death of Boris
Tchaikovsky    Symphony No. 1 in G minor, “Winter Daydreams”


The idea of period performance Mussorgsky might seem counter-intuitive. After all, Mussorgsky speaks of the deep, chthonic heart of Mother Russia, of olden times, of deep drama told in bold strokes. And on this occasion, one’s suspicions came true. In fact, it was almost as if every aspect of the first half was intended to give us “Mussorgsky-lite”. There was no physical chorus present: the important choral lines of the Coronation Scene were omitted, leaving just the orchestral part, while the choral contributions at the end of Death of Boris (“Weep, weep, o people”) were realised via a recording made in St Petersburg as part of OAE performances earlier in January 2015. In addition, we had a baritone Boris. It is thru that Sergei Leiferkus is someone who is a big name and who sings with a wealth of experience, but he is a baritone nonetheless.

First, though, we heard Night on a Bare Mountain in its original (non-Rimsky) version. The palpable bite to the strings at the opening boded well, but the brass could have been more substantial of voice. The plus sides were the tightness of rhythm throughout and the fact that Jurowski also let through the turbulence of the piece.

The excerpts from Boris began with a “Coronation Scene” that lacked grandeur – and also omitted not just the chorus but also the brief vocal announcement of Boris’ entrance. Boris’ Monologue boded well as, despite having a tone that is lighter than usual for the role, Leiferkus remained focused and resonant. If the sheer heft of the orchestra was lacking earlier on, the period element came into its own in the transparency of the textures in the quieter moments. It was debatable, though, just how tormented a soul Leiferkus’s Boris was in the final scene. Tellingly phrased and unfailingly musical throughout, the fact remained that one was not properly dragged into the world of Mussorgsky’s opera by either Leiferkus’ portrayal or the orchestral contribution. The piped chorus just added to the sense of emotional disconnection this performance exuded.

The Tchaikovsky First Symphony, which inhabited the second half, is a piece that, along with the remaining earlier Tchaikovsky symphonies, really deserves more frequent outings. There was much to admire in Jurowski’s reading, in which he allowed a modicum of string vibrato in the more lyrical moments and in which the strings’ transparency once more provided much pleasure. The gloriously dancing Trio of the Scherzo was a highlight, as was the rigorous counterpoint of the finale. Yet it did not exude the sense of wholeness that one might have hoped for, resulting in a disconcertingly episodic experience. All credit to the OAE players, but in the final analysis they required a conductor with a finer grasp of the piece to fully bring it off.


Colin Clarke