Mussorgsky: Unorthodox Music review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week

Claire Booth/Christopher Glynn
A ‘cradle-to-grave songspiel’ describing the arc of a woman’s life is brilliantly conceived by soprano Booth and pianist Glynn

Modest Mussorgsky is indisputably one of the greatest of 19th-century Russian composers, but getting a real sense of his unruly output has never been easy. Well-meaning later composers – Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel, Shostakovich – rearranged his most famous works, attempting to impose civilised accessibility on music that is anything but elegant and accommodating, and often obscured the radicalism and originality of his works in the process.

Modest Mussorgsky: Unorthodox Music album cover
Modest Mussorgsky: Unorthodox Music album cover Photograph: Publicity image

Soprano Claire Booth and pianist Christopher Glynn’s approach to this quirky genius is through his piano music and 60-odd songs. They spent a year sifting through them all before creating the sequence that appears on this disc, following the scheme of their earlier collections for Avie of Percy Grainger and Edvard Grieg. The selection includes numbers from Mussorgsky’s three song-cycles, The Nursery, Sunless and Songs and Dances of Death, alongside stand-alone settings and piano pieces.

They call the result “a cradle-to-grave songspiel”, describing the arc of a woman’s life, beginning in the nursery, and moving through youth and marriage to final loneliness. As they point out in their sleeve notes, unlike Mussorgsky’s operas, which contain few significant female characters, his songs frequently take a woman’s viewpoint, even though nowadays they are more often associated with male singers.

Booth brings each song to life with operatic vividness, whether it’s the satirical The Goat with which the disc opens, the sadness of bereavement in The Leaves Rustled Softly, or the desolation of On the River, from Sunless. Every one of them becomes a miniature scena, while the piano pieces that Glynn places between them sometimes offer contrast, sometimes reinforcement. The whole thing is a joy, brilliantly conceived and presented with tremendous panache.

This week’s other pick

One of the piano pieces that Glynn includes is Cum Mortuis in Lingua Mortua, a movement from Mussorgsky’s best known work, Pictures at an Exhibition, and the whole work is included in Alexander Krichel’s recital for Berlin Classics. The performance is forthright and effective, without competing with the finest versions already available, such as those from Sviatoslav Richter, Mikhail Pletnev and Steven Osborne. But it’s the other major work on Krichel’s disc – George Enescu’s Second Suite – that provides the curiosity. Written at the very beginning of the 20th-century in Paris, where it won a competition whose judges included Debussy, D’Indy and Reynaldo Hahn, the suite is certainly a well-mannered piece of French neoclassicism, with enough keyboard flamboyance to put Krichel through his paces.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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