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Oleg Ledeniov
MusicWeb International, September 2011

The group of nationalistic Russian composers led by Balakirev is known under the name The Mighty Handful or The Mighty Five. These are magnanimous translations: a more correct one would be “mighty little pile” or “mighty little heap”. Yes, in Russian it sounds funny.

The present album contains songs written by these five composers. Their styles have much in common—after all, they were united by the epoch and the goals. On the other hand, we can perceive the dissimilarity of their characters. What could be more different than down-to-earth, histrionic songs of Mussorgsky versus introvert, restrained ones by Borodin? Balakirev is didactic, Cui is placid, and Rimsky-Korsakov is trying to be monumental—just as they are in bigger genres. So what we have here is a mosaic gallery where small pieces add up to create portraits.

Russian basses were always famous, and Mikhail Svetlov continues the glorious tradition of Chaliapin, Reizen and Nesterenko. A soloist in the Bolshoi Theatre for more than a decade, he seems to be better suited to the more theatrical creations of Mussorgsky and Balakirev than to the more intimate works of the other three. His Mussorgsky is really special. Some of these songs would not have such impact if sung by a different voice type. For example, The Song of the Flea, with its sinister ha-ha-ha, has a real Mephisto glint. There is voice theatre in every word. Svetlov applies different colors in different songs. A Society Tale and The Seminarist are great fun, especially if you follow the text closely. He also has excellent diction, which is important in tongue-twisting songs like Mischief. A distinguishing trait of Mussorgsky’s songs is that the intonations are very natural—it’s almost verismo.

The four Songs and Dances of Death are very different between themselves in character and intensity, and it is not easy for one singer to excel in them all. Svetlov’s Lullaby is not as personal and therefore not as terrifying as it could be: it seems to be too operatic. The same operatic approach is in Serenade—as a result, Death is not as much seducing the sick girl, as already celebrating the victory. Svetlov’s Trepak is very intense, the colors are thick: Death is giving orders, not playing with the victim. Finally, we arrive at The Field Marshal, where Death is mustering the fallen warriors. Here Svetlov’s intense delivery really works—but now, after he did it in other songs, the effect is not as overwhelming as it could be. Svetlov’s bass here projects great power, it receives a metallic edge: this is the trombone voice, the cast iron. Overall, the performance of the cycle is strong and solid.

The songs of other composers on this disc are much closer to standard salon romances. In their long shaded notes Svetlov’s voice is occasionally unstable, and sometimes it seems that a baritone would have been a better choice. Apparently, his stronger side is characteristic singing, not delicate nuance. César Cui is represented by two miniatures on Pushkin’s verses, each one a minute long. They are elegant and nice, but nothing more. In mood and style they are not far from Gremin’s aria from Eugene Onegin.

The first song by Rimsky-Korsakov is also on the text by Pushkin. It describes the process of turning a man into a prophet. The music adds little to the effect of the poem. Maybe it even diminishes it, due to the regularity and predictability. The voice part is a bit square, but the piano accompaniment is very graphic in depicting what’s happening. In the Quiet of the Night is a standard romance, like many songs of Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov. Upon the Georgian Hills has a well-wrapped, beautiful Caucasian melody, but Svetlov’s vibrato annoys. The Rainy Day Has Waned is non-standard, and resembles a choral prelude by Bach. All the feelings, all the underlying currents of the emotion are expressed by the liquid piano, while the voice part is restrained, almost indifferent. In this story much is said between the lines. Svetlov gives a passionate yet reserved account.

Balakirev’s Barcarolle is strophic, with a lilting Neapolitan flavor. When I Hear Your Voice is an expression of love, shy and sentimental. The Fool has a Russian folk character; the accompaniment depicts the quick flow of the river which the hero addresses. Byronic lyrics of Hebrew Melody are concentrated Romanticism. The accompaniment is dense, with oriental elements. The result is heavy-handed, and in the end you’ll probably better remember the accompaniment than the melody.

Borodin’s songs leave a strange feeling of incompletion. The Miraculous Garden starts promisingly, with atmospheric ripples and slow, enchanted oscillations—but Svetlov’s voice is too heavy for it, and all his deep, round O-s bring incongruity into the picture. The aftertaste is not pleasant. The next two miniatures are curious chunks that seem more like half-songs or even half-verses. Each has one little musical idea: it’s done and it’s gone. Song of the Dark Forest reminds us that Borodin was the author of Prince Igor and the Bogatyr Symphony (No. 2). It is written in Russian folk style, as if an opening to an epic narration. The piano part is extremely low, creating a dark and powerful atmosphere.

The booklet contains an interesting and well-structured essay about the composers and the songs. The texts themselves are not included, but you can see them on the Naxos site, in Russian transliteration and English translation. The recording balance is not ideal: Svetlov’s voice eclipses the piano, which is placed too far in the background. The contribution of Pavlina Dokovska is excellent. She is sensitive to the lyrics, and supportive to the soloist. In the Songs and Dances of Death, her playing is really impressive.

Daniel Morrison
Fanfare, September 2011

This disc brings together a selection of songs by the five members of the Mighty Handful, and serves as a useful and economical introduction to their contributions in this genre, although with more than 23 minutes of unused space on the disc, more songs could have been included. Bass Mikhail Svetlov was originally known as Mikhail Krutikov. Under that name he was a member of the Bolshoi Theater company for more than a decade and participated in Bolshoi recordings of Rachmaninov’s The Miserly Knight, Alexander Serov’s Judith (both on Harmonia Mundi), and Prokofiev’s Betrothal in a Monastery (BMG). He also appears in recordings of Rimsky-Korsakov’s May Night and Shostakovich’s unfinished opera The Gamblers (both on Capriccio), as well as a recording of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis conducted by Antal Doráti (BIS). He has performed with major opera companies throughout the world. I have not been able to discover the reason for his name change, but it appears that at a certain point he emigrated to the U.S. You would learn little of this history from the Naxos notes. His performances on this disc are for the most part very good. He has a sonorous, well-rounded voice, evenly produced and pleasing in timbre, and he is able to scale it up or down as the material requires. He shows no strain or discomfort at either end of his range, although his tone sometimes betrays a slight unsteadiness in held notes. He tends to adopt rather brisk tempi by comparison with other interpreters, but nothing sounds hurried. He characterizes each song convincingly, dramatizing where the opportunity offers itself but not to excess. Pavlina Dokovska’s accompaniments are discreetly proficient, properly proportioned in relation to the voice. The recorded sound is for the most part clear and spacious, although there can sometimes be a reverberant halo on the voice in peaks, and I hear one instance of actual distortion. Texts are available via download (Russian transliteration and English translation only, no Cyrillic). I must also report that these texts occasionally deviate from the words actually sung, and I believe it is the singer who is accurate.

The most familiar items in this collection are those by Mussorgsky, especially the harrowing cycle Songs and Dances of Death, which is frequently encountered in versions orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov or Shostakovich. It is good to hear it as the composer left it, with a stark piano accompaniment that reinforces the bleakness and despair engendered by the omnipresence of death. Svetlov’s rendition is more straightforward than many, with less variation of tempo, but he effectively characterizes these mini-dramas of mortality while avoiding excessive histrionics. The four remaining Mussorgsky songs are excellent. In “Song of the Flea,” with a text translated from Goethe, Svetlov persuasively impersonates Mephistopheles. The biting satire of “The Goat,” “Mischief,” and “The Seminarist,” with clever texts by the composer, is fully realized in Svetlov’s rendition, again with a comparatively straightforward approach free from excessive mugging.

César Cui (1835–1918), the longest-lived but reputedly the least talented of the five, wrote several operas but is remembered today, if at all, chiefly as a composer of songs. This disc contains only two brief ones (The Statue at Tsarskoye Selo, Thou and You), each lasting a little over a minute. Both are pleasing and poignant, although not arresting. Svetlov delivers them effectively, switching with ease to a lyrical, cantante style of singing from the declamatory style required by the Mussorgsky items. Like both of Cui’s contributions, three of the four Rimsky-Korsakov songs are settings of poems by Alexander Pushkin. They are interesting and varied in character but not entirely what one would expect from the composer’s operas and closer to the style of Tchaikovsky. Mily Balakirev (1837–1910), the founder and mentor of the Mighty Handful, is also represented by four songs, of which Hebrew Melody, to a text derived from Lord Byron, is perhaps the most striking. They Keep Calling Me a Fool, a drunkard’s lament, is similar in vein to the satirical songs of Mussorgsky, although written long after the latter’s death. The best-known of Alexander Borodin’s handful of songs, For the Shores of the Distant Homeland, is not included on this disc. Of the four that are, Song of the Dark Forest, with text by the composer, is the most compelling.

I can recommend this disc to those interested in the Russian song repertoire, all the more so since many alternatives I might suggest are not readily available.

Charles H Parsons
American Record Guide, July 2011

Svetlov lives this repertoire as he easily, dramatically moves his way from song to song. Dokovska is the excellent accompanist…excellent notes.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2011

Mikhail Svetlov, a principal soloist at the Bolshoy Theatre in Moscow for more than a decade, offers a recital of famous Russian bass songs. His list of guest appearances includes most of the worlds most prestigious opera houses, and he has already made highly acclaimed recordings. The recital includes finely characterised performances of four of Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death which form the serious part of a disc that has opened with the composer’s ‘Song in Auerbach’s Cellar’ , also known as ‘The Song of the Flee’ . The least known are two short songs from Cesar Cui—The Statue at Tsarskoye Selo, and Thou and You—and certainly the finest moments arrive in a group of four songs from Rimsky-Korsakov, including The Prophet and the dramatic The rainy day has waned. Two more groups of four songs come from Balakirev and Borodin, the latter producing that wonderfully haunting, The Miraculous Garden, and the highly disturbing Song of the Dark Forest. By tradition Russian basses have intonation problems, but there is no substitute when it comes to the timbre required in their national music. Pavlina Dokovska is a responsive pianist, the New York venue a bit boomy for the instrument. You can go to Naxos website to obtain text and translations.

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