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Sergei Leiferkus [Photo: Askonas Holt]
18 Dec 2009

Sergei Leiferkus at Wigmore Hall

Exchanging the stage of The Royal Opera House — where he is currently performing the role of His Highness in Tchaikovsky’s fairy-tale opera, The Tsarina's Slippers

Schumann: Liederkreis (Op.39)
Musorgsky: The peep-show; Songs and Dances of Death; The Seminarist; Mefistopheles’ Song.

Sergei Leiferkus, baritone; Semyon Skigin, piano. Wigmore Hall, London. Tuesday 15 December 2009.

Above: Sergei Leiferkus [Photo: Askonas Holt]


for the more intimate setting of the Wigmore Hall, the veteran Russian baritone, Sergei Leiferkus, offered an intriguing programme of songs from his compatriot, Modest Musorgsky, coupled with Robert Schumann’s ecstatic, joyful cycle, Leiderkreis.

The programme booklet remarked the ‘considerable stylistic gulf’ between these two composers, and while it proposed a rationale behind this unusual pairing (that is, the influence on Russian composers of Musorgsky’s time of German lieder, in terms of how a vocal line and accompaniment ‘could be tailored to the expressive allusions of the text’), it was a gulf that Leiferkus was not entirely convincing in bridging.

Certainly, this was an imposing, confident performance from both baritone and pianist. Leiferkus’ voice is a powerful instrument and from the start it thundered to the far reaches of the hall. Yet, herein lay the problem: while an appropriate depth of passion and lyric ecstasy were evident in songs such as ‘In der Fremde’ and ‘Im Walde’, the performers did not grasp the opportunity to convey the contrasting moments of tenderness and yearning introspection which the texts surely offer.

That is not to suggest that there was no variety of colour or mood. Leiferkus’ diction was crisp and clear, and at times he showed sensitivity to textual details: the slow, reflective pace of ‘Mondnacht’ was further enhanced by the deep resonance of his profound bass in the opening lines, ‘It was as though Heaven/had softly kissed the Earth’; and the pointing of particular words — ‘Ein altes, schönes Lied […] Und zu dir eilig zieht’ - at the conclusion of ‘Intermezzo’ was touching and affective. Here, Skigin was a faultless partner, deftly complementing significant melodic gestures, flexible in rhythm, employing a wide range of dynamics, drawing out the contrasting resonances of major and minor keys. Skigin, Leiferkus’ frequent and long-term accompanist, shared the singer’s vision of these songs and matched his commanding presence, the accompaniment injecting much energy and turbulence, as in ‘Schöne Fremde’ where the ‘glittering stars gaze down on me,/fierily and full of love’.

However, the performers did not satisfactorily convey the moments of hushed awe and sublime stillness which complement the extravagant joy which blossoms through the sequence. There is a gradual movement from winter darkness to spring awakening, but there was little sense of nature’s delicate, inspiring presence. In particular, ‘Wehmut’, where ‘Nightingales, when spring/breezes play outside, sing/their song of longing …’, suffered from an overly assertive, full tone. Overall, Leiferkus’ rather stern sound seemed more suitable for the distinguished majesty of His Excellency over the road at Covent Garden than for the yearning romantic dreamer of Eichendorff’s tender verse. There were also some occasional tuning problems: chromatic indefinition marred the magical close of ‘Mondnacht’, while the octave unisons of ‘Auf einer Burg’ suffered from occasional lapses of intonation.

The second half of the concert was a wholly different musical and dramatic experience. Leiferkus found in Musorgsky’s songs a greater combination of musical colours, and here his voice, not ‘beautiful’ in a conventional sense, was truly expressive of the sentiments of the text, both tragic and comic. The latter vein was remarkably captured in ‘The peep-show’: Leiferkus articulated every syllable admirably, and the intensity of his dramatic characterization was enhanced by his ability to span a wide dynamic range in the space of a few bars. Here gestures which had seemed unsubtle and exaggerated in Schumann’s lieder became appropriately biting and incisive. The miniature dramas of ‘The Songs and Dances of Death’ were eloquent and deeply moving. The wonderfully dark tone of Leiferkus’ baritone conveyed a musical depth which perfectly matched a text which speaks of the figure of ‘light, merciful’ Death, who ‘sings his serenade’ to the mother cradling her sick child, to the drunken peasant stumbling in the snow-strewn field at night, to slaughtered troops who are commanded to parade before the triumphant ‘Field Marshal’. Skigin was again a responsive partner in these songs.

So, a rather mixed evening. I will certainly be exploring Leiderkus’ four-volume recording set of Musorgsky songs, but on the whole I prefer my Schumann a little less statuesque.

Claire Seymour

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