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ClassicsOnline Home » Vocal Recital: Svetlov, Mikhail - MUSSORGSKY, M.P. / CUI, C. / RIMSKY-KORSAKOV, N.A. / BALAKIREV, M.A. / BORODIN, A.P. (Russian Songs)
When the Russian art historian and critic Vladimir Stasov declared in 1867 ‘how much poetry, feeling, talent, and intelligence are possessed by the small but already mighty handful of Russian musicians’, the five nationalist composers to whom he referred adopted the nickname with pride. Though each developed his own personal style, they remained committed to forging a truly Russian musical tradition, not least through pieces such as these songs. Russian bass Mikhail Svetlov is a winner of the Viotti International Competition and has been principal soloist of the legendary Bolshoy Theatre of Moscow for more than a decade.
Mussorgsky • Cui • Rimsky-Korsakov • Balakirev • Borodin
The group of nineteenth-century Russian composers widely known as the Mighty Handful (moguchaya kuchka) owe their popular nickname to the leading Russian art historian and critic Vladimir Vasilyevich Stasov, son of a distinguished architect, welcoming a concert put together in 1867 by Mily Balakirev for the delegates to the Pan-Slavic Congress in St Petersburg. Under Peter the Great and his successors Russia had turned to the West, but the middle years of the nineteenth century brought an inceasing division between those who looked to Western Europe for inspiration and those who found it in the native arts of Russia. In music the emergence of a group of young enthusiasts, led at first by Balakirev and encouraged by Stasov, marked a break with the contemporary initiative of Anton and Nikolay Rubinstein, who established conservatories in St Petersburg and then in Moscow, institutions intended to train Russian musicians in the musical techniques with which they had become familiar in Germany. For Anton Rubinstein the nationalist composers seemed mere amateurs; for the nationalists the conservatories seemed stultifying, although divisions between the two groups were not always as clear as they might now seem. Balakirev’s five composers, Mussorgsky, Cui, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov, soon began to draw apart, divergent in ability and interests, and less willing to accept Balakirev’s strictures. By the end of the century a synthesis had been reached between nationalists and westernisers, with the emergence of a thoroughly competent and professional school of Russian composition, the age of Glazunov and of Rachmaninov.
Mily Balakirev, sometimes described as the only member of the Mighty Handful to have had a professional training, was, as a composer, at least, largely self-taught. This did not prevent him from assuming a leading rôle in the early activities of his fellow-nationalists. Born in Nizhny-Novgorod in 1837, the son of a minor government official, he developed his early musical abilities and was finally able to support himself in St Petersburg, by giving piano lessons and private performances. It was here that he met two young army officers, Cui and Mussorgsky, both keen amateur composers over whom he began to exert some influence, and Dmitry and Vladimir Stasov. In 1861 he met the naval cadet Rimsky-Korsakov and a year later the research chemist Borodin. Balakirev’s later career brought limited success, as his former disciples pursued their own courses. For a time in the early 1870s he withdrew from musical life, returning to take a position as director of the Imperial Court Chapel. The establishment of a means of publication for Russian music by Belyayev seemed to threaten his position and the younger group of composers that he sought to influence never reached the eminence of The Five, while his own compositions, to which in later years he devoted himself, aroused little interest.
The first three of Balakirev’s 45 songs were written in 1855, the last in 1909, the year before his death. This is in addition to the two collections Russian folk-songs he compiled and for which he provided piano accompaniments, the first, a set of forty folk-songs, in 1866 and the second, Thirty Songs of the Russian People, in 1898. The lilting Barkarola (Barcarolle) , from 1858, is a setting of a text by Alexander Arsen’yev based on Heine’s Du schönes Fischermädchen. Slïyshu li golos tvoy (When I hear your voice) , a setting of words by Mikhail Yur’yevich Lermontov, dates from 1863, and Kak naladidi: durak (They keep calling me a fool) , a poem by Lev Alexsandrovich Ley that had been set by Tchaikovsky twenty years before, appears in a collection of ten songs from 1895–96. The sardonic poem urges a drunkard to turn from ‘green wine’ (vodka) to water, whatever the likely consequences. Evreyskaya melodiya (Hebrew Melody)  was written in 1859, a setting of a translation by Lermontov of the ninth of Byron’s Hebrew Melodies, My soul is dark - Oh! quickly string / The harp I yet can brook to hear. The song starts with a slow setting of the opening words, followed by more passionate music.
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky was born in 1839, the fourth son of a land-owner and as a young officer had musical ambitions and, without any training in composition, tried his hand at an opera and less demanding compositions for the entertainment of his friends. It was a meeting with the nationalist composer César Cui, an expert in military fortification, and with the composer Dargomïzhsky, that led him to a more influential connection with Balakirev and Vladimir Stasov, Mussorgsky’s first biographer. The latter at first found little good to say of Mussorgsky, whom he found lacking in ideas and a complete idiot, a judgement in which Balakirev concurred at the time and over the following years. Mussorgsky resigned his commission in the army in 1858. Following the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, which brought financial consequences for land-owners, in 1863 he took a position as a clerk in the Ministry of Communications, and continued intermittently in government employment. It was from this time onwards that he developed his own highly original musical ideas and language, and his deep interest in the people and history of Russia. In 1867 he left the civil service and attempted to earn a living from music, as a teacher and accompanist, but then returned briefly to government service, before his bouts of drinking finally forced him to abandon this in 1880, after attempts by friends to protect his position. He died in March the following year, his death the result of epilepsy, induced by alcoholism, and leaving much unfinished, to be revised and edited by his colleague Rimsky-Korsakov.
Mussorgsky wrote songs throughout his life, the first at the age of nineteen and the last, and best known of all, in 1879. Mephistopheles’s Song in Auerbach’s Cellar  was written during the course of a concert tour that summer with the singer Darya Leonova, to whom it was dedicated. The ballad, taken from Part I of Goethe’s Faust, is a satire on court sycophancy. Svetskaya skazochka: kozyol (A Society Tale: The Goat)  was written in January 1868 and dedicated to Borodin. The text, by Mussorgsky, is described as A Worldly Story, in which a girl takes fright at an ugly old goat, but is happy to marry an ugly old man. The satire is emphasized by the repetition of the music of the first strophe for the second, more profitable encounter. Ozornik (Mischief) , dedicated to Stasov and with words by the composer, was written in 1867. In a rapid 5/4 the urchin insults the old woman, his taunts matched to the changing pace and dynamics of the singer. Seminarist (The Seminarist)  dates from 1866 and was dedicated to Glinka’s sister, Lyudmila Shestakova, an enthusiastic supporter. Mussorgsky’s text and setting contrast the dull repetition of third declension Latin nouns, the seminarian’s lascivious thoughts of the priest’s daughter, and the punishment he receives from his master. Pesni i piyaski smerti (Songs and Dances of Death) – date from 1875, with the fourth song written in 1877. Based on a suggestion from Stasov and with texts by Arseny Golenischchev-Kutuzov, the songs reflect encounters with death. In the first, Kolïbel’naya (Lullaby), Death lulls to final sleep a child, dying in his mother’s arms, and in the second, dedicated to Glinka’s sister, Death serenades a dying girl, claiming her as his own. In Trepak, dedicated to the bass Osip Petrov, Death dances with a drunken peasant, lured to die in the ice and snow. The fourth song, Polkovodets (The Field Marshal), dedicated to Kutuzov, presents a scene of battle, after which Death surveys the field, having conquered all.
César Cui was the son of a French army officer, who chose to remain in Russia after the defeat of Napoleon and the retreat from Moscow. His mother was Lithuanian, and Cui was brought up in the town of his birth, Vilnius, where his father taught French. Cui’s professional studies in military engineering took place in St Petersburg, where he was able to further his musical interests. He was to continue his career as a professor of military fortification, while devoting much of his time to the ideals of Balakirev, whom he had met in 1856. He became influential particularly as a critic and as a proponent of Russian ideals in music, regarding the allegedly European tendencies of the more cosmopolitan Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky with some disfavour. As a composer Cui won Balakirev’s early approval, particularly for his supposed achievement in opera with the early Prisoner in the Caucasus, followed by a version of Heine’s William Ratcliff. In addition to his stage works, Cui wrote songs and piano pieces in some profusion, larger scale choral works and a baker’s dozen of orchestral pieces. Perhaps wisely, he avoided the sustained intricacies of the symphony, but excelled in shorter forms, for which he is chiefly remembered.
Two of Cui’s songs are included here, both taken from his Twenty-Five Poems by Pushkin of 1899. Tsarskoselskaya Statya (The Statue at Tsarskoye Selo)  sets Pushkin’s poem about the statue of a girl with a broken pitcher in the pleasure gardens at Tsarskoye Selo, near St Petersburg, in pleasure grounds laid out during the rule of Catherine the Great. The girl sits in sadness, but water continues to flow from the broken pitcher. Ty i Vy (Thou and You)  loses its point in English, where distinction is no longer made between the intimate second personal singular and the formal second person plural. In Russian, as in many other languages, the difference remains, a reminder of Pierre’s hesitant approach in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, when he addresses the object of his affections with the formal usage. Both songs are admirable examples of Cui’s succinctness and gift for the miniature.
Born in 1844, Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov, perhaps the most successful of the Five, had first met Balakirev, Cui and Mussorgsky in 1861, but contact had been broken during a two-and-a-half-year tour of naval duty abroad. Following his childhood ambition and family tradition, he had entered the naval college in 1856, and only resigned his commission in 1873, after which he spent a dozen years as Inspector of Naval Bands. He had already been invited, in 1871, to join the staff of the Conservatory in St Petersburg, with which he continued a connection over the years, his tenure briefly interrupted in 1905, after the student unrest of that year. He was at first strongly influenced by Balakirev, but his involvement with Belyayev aroused Balakirev’s jealousy. Nevertheless his loyalty to the Five led him to spend much time on the revision and completion of works left unfinished by Mussorgsky and Borodin, after their early deaths. Rimsky-Korsakov acquired, above all, a degree of professionalism, displayed in his interest in and command of orchestration, and in the number of major compositions, including, significantly, a relatively large number of operas, the first staged in 1873 and the last, The Golden Cockerel, delayed for political reasons until 1909, a year after the composer’s death.
1866 brought the publication of the first groups of Rimsky-Korsakov’s songs, and the last were written in 1898. The final period, following the completion of the opera Sadko, brought some 47 new songs, leading him to contrast this productivity with the early years of the Five. The songs performed here include three settings of Pushkin, the first Prorok (The Prophet)  was written in 1897 and dedicated to Stasov. The imagery of Pushkin’s poem is reflected throughout the song, the meeting, in desert wandering, with a Seraph, the purification of his soul and divine inspiration. The gently poetic O chyom v tishi nochey (In the Quiet of the Night) , dedicated to Lyadov, a setting of a poem by Maykov, comes from the same year. The declamatory Na kholmakh Gruzii… (Upon the Georgian hills…) , with a poem from Pushkin, belongs to the early period of Rimsky-Korsakov’s song-writing, 1866, of which it is characteristic. The melancholy Pushkin setting Nenastnïy den’ potukh (The rainy day has waned) , dedicated to the composer’s wife, dates from 1897.
Alexander Borodin won international distinction as a professor of chemistry. His work as a composer was limited by his other duties and preoccupations, and at his death he left a number of compositions unfinished, to be completed by his friend Rimsky-Korsakov and others. Born in 1833, he was the illegitimate son of a Georgian prince, given the name of one of his father’s serfs. He was brought up by his mother in relatively privileged cultural surroundings that brought acquaintance with a number of Western European languages and a profound interest in music, a continuing enthusiasm that at times distracted him from his increasingly distinguished work as a scientist.
Four of the handful of songs left by Borodin at his early death in 1887 are included here. Chudnïy sad (The Miraculous Garden)  is a setting of the French poet Georges Collin’s Septain, translated by Borodin and set in 1885, a depiction, in its chromatic accompaniment, of the mystery of some great garden, with its formal paths and alleys.
Fal’shivaya nota (False Note) , with words by Borodin and dedicated to Mussorgsky, was written in 1868, reaching a climax at the detection of a false note in his beloved’s declaration of love. Iz slyoz moikh (From my tears)  is a translation by Mey of Heine’s Aus meinen Tränen, the deceptively simple setting composed in 1870–71 and reflecting the feelings of the text in which tears and sighs are the source of flowers and the singing of nightingales, to be laid at the feet of the beloved. Pesnya tyomnogo lesa (Song of the Dark Forest) , with words by Borodin, was written in 1868 and explores the depths of a very Russian dark forest.
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Vocal Recital: Svetlov, Mikhail - MUSSORGSKY, M.P....