Songs by Mahler and Mussorgsky resonate in a gaol setting

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler, Mussorgsky: Margaret Bridge (mezzo-soprano), Brendan Collins (baritone), Tristan Russcher (piano), Cameron Menzies (creatives). Crumlin Road Gaol, Belfast, 8.3.2023. (RB)

Margaret Bridge (mezzo-soprano) © Neil Harrison Photography

Mahler – Kindertotenlieder
MussorgskySongs and Dances of Death

This was the fifth concert in Northern Ireland Opera’s Salon Series which involves the company staging short operas, song cycles, cabaret art songs and music theatre numbers in famous venues around Northern Ireland. This concert featured two of the darkest song cycles in the classical music repertoire. The venue was Crumlin Road Gaol which closed in the 1990’s and has now been turned into a tourist attraction and venue for music events. There is a famous tunnel underneath the gaol which connects it to the former courthouse building which is immediately across the road. A number of executions were carried out in the gaol – the last in 1961 – and the execution chamber is still there.

Salon Series at Crumlin Road Gaol © Neil Harrison Photography

Cameron Menzies transformed the main atrium of the gaol into the stage. Stairways lead up to walkways on the upper levels and we could see the various wings of the gaol leading to bars and empty cells. On the main stage, Menzies had assembled several props including an empty pram, stacked suitcases, candelabras and faded flowers. All the performers were dressed in black as befits such a concert and venue. Margaret Bridge’s dress and covering jacket signalled the nineteenth-century setting for these songs. The two main performers acted out their roles beautifully and made maximum use of the props, whether by pushing the empty pram, lingering over candles or placing flowers down in memory of the dead.

Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the death of children) were written between 1901-1904.  They are based on poems of the same name by the German poet, Friedrich Rückert, who wrote them in an outpouring of grief after the death of two of his children from scarlet fever. Child death was not uncommon when this work was written, and Mahler’s own daughter died of scarlet fever three years after the completion of the work. Mahler intended the songs to be performed as one continuous cycle rather than as five individual songs.

Margaret Bridge and Tristan Russcher gave a highly accomplished account of this darkest of song cycles. Bridge brought a wonderful range of tonal colour to the work, and she injected the songs with just the right balance of dignified reflection and anguish. The fourth song was exquisitely beautiful as reflection was tinged with unbearable sadness. Occasionally, some of Mahler’s extended legato lines could have been a little smoother, particularly in the first song. Russcher provided an admirable accompaniment throughout. He was highly responsive to the shifting chromatics of the first song and did an excellent job summoning up an elemental storm in the final song, with its echoes of Schubert’s Winterreise. Bridge ended the song on a note of consolation as she laid flowers in memory of the dead child.

Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death was written in the 1870’s and is regarded as his masterpiece in the genre.  Each of the four songs in the set deals with death in a poetic manner while describing events which were not uncommon in nineteenth-century Russia. In the opening lullaby, death comes for a sick child who is being cradled by his mother. In the second, death serenades a young woman, while in the third he invites a drunken peasant who is caught in a snowstorm to dance a trepak. The terrifying final song shows Mussorgsky at his most nihilistic; it depicts death coming for soldiers after a bloody battle. Death tells them that the living will forget them and he will harden the earth above them so they cannot be resurrected.

Brendan Collins and Tristan Russcher successfully captured the terrifying nature of the songs. Collins did a brilliant job bringing each of the dramatic scenes to life and I was highly impressed with his enormous vocal power. He portrayed the chilling nature of the Lullaby as death comes for the sick child, while skilfully depicting the mother’s distress. I wondered if there was perhaps scope for Collins to bring out more of the seductiveness in the second song. The third song was an exhilarating tour de force as Collins and Russcher joined forces in Mussorgsky’s macabre dance of death. Russcher showed his virtuoso credentials by summoning up the unruly snowstorm depicted in the song. Collins ended the set on a thrilling note as the song gradually built to an incendiary climax which sees death triumphantly consigning the opposing armies to oblivion.

This was a first-rate song recital and Crumlin Road Gaol was an inspired choice of venue.

Robert Beattie       

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