Robert Holl & András Schiff – Mussorgsky & Shostakovich

Suite on Verses of Michelangelo, Op.145a
Songs and Dances of Death

Robert Holl (baritone) & András Schiff (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 13 November, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

A challenging programme, in subject matter rather than musical quality, as the latest instalment of András Schiff’s “Songs With and Without Words” series brought together two Russian heavyweights of song.

Robert HollWith death the principal subject matter, glimpses of light were to be treasured, yet so powerful were Robert Holl’s interpretations it was impossible not to feel moved by the music.

Shostakovich and Mussorgsky made good complementary choices, the former’s ‘Michelangelo Suite’ bearing Mussorgsky’s influence alongside the Mahler of “Das Lied von der Erde”. Written by Shostakovich in his final year, the settings offer moments of intense introspection yet offsets these with deep-set resilience. Initially all was darkness, Schiff’s harsh treble tone hurling out the opening phrase, with Holl’s big sound a captivating response. This opening poem, ‘Truth’, and the fifth, ‘Anger’, were bleak, the accompaniment sparse and claustrophobic.

When orchestrating the settings, some weeks after its premiere, Shostakovich drew attention to its symphonic credentials, and several of the movements flow naturally without a break, the transitions managed expertly by Schiff. Sometimes he was a colourless accompanist, fully in the spirit of ‘To The Exile’, then crisply striking the sculptor’s hammer in ‘Creativity’. Holl’s tone was more obviously varied, finding a beautiful but short-lived peace at the end of ‘Separation’, then a weary countenance in ‘Death’ itself.

The final image was one of hope – as with his other solo passages, Schiff bringing a searing intensity to the simplest passage of music. In this case it was a tune penned by the nine-year old Shostakovich, made into a clipped duet to form the basis of the postlude, ‘Immortality’. This ghostly march brought relief, as did the profound silence that followed.

András SchiffThe mood remained sombre after the interval, if anything darkening with the realisation that Mussorgsky’s unsettling cycle “Sunless” is one of the few works completed by the composer before the onset of alcoholism. It contains some startling music – not so much in dynamics or tempo, rather in its refusal to confirm to the expectations of his compatriots at the time, occupying an elusive formal design.

Holl was noticeably lighter in tone here, as was Schiff, both enjoying their slight elevations of register and a comparative variety of accompaniment. Hope was offered in brief reminiscences of the past, which drew ‘The empty, noisy day is over’ from the doldrums to a radiant C major ending.

With four of the six songs set at night, however, these opportunities were necessarily short-lived, and the ‘Elegy’ was striking in its alternation of restfulness and outright discomfort. The closing ‘On The River’ turned in on itself, continually moving toward a quiet repose but eluding resolution in a manner that pricked the ears of Debussy and Stravinsky, the latter revealed in Andrew Huth’s informative programme-note to have considered orchestrating the cycle.

The near-seamless join to “Songs and Dances of Death” was something of a masterstroke, Schiff’s nagging alternation of C and D flat transformed to the opening two notes of a moving ‘Lullaby’. Here now was a more affirmative mood, Mussorgsky’s vision of death this time relatively upward-looking, and the two protagonists responded accordingly. As the ‘Serenade’ drew to a close, Holl leant forward with the words “Ti moya!” (You Are Mine!), holding the audience for that moment in the palm of his outstretched hand. The darkly triumphant Field Marshal arrived at a crushing finish.

Still more affecting was the inclusion of the composer’s first published song, “Where Are You, My Little Star”, as an encore. Its ornamented melody has a childlike simplicity and freedom as it transferred from singer to piano and back again, seeking a beautiful major key resolution but eventually shying away to the minor. Holl and Schiff captured this exquisite tension, ending a masterful recital of difficult yet strangely uplifting music.

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