Sergei Leiferkus & Semyon Skigin at Wigmore Hall – Schumann & Mussorgsky

Liederkreis Op.39
Songs and Dances of Death
The Seminarist
Mefistopheles’s Song

Sergei Leiferkus (baritone) & Semyon Skigin (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 15 December, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Sergei LeiferkusSergei Leiferkus first came to prominence in the West at the Wexford Festival in 1982 and progressed unusually by taking major roles with English National Opera, Scottish Opera and Opera North. After his debut at Covent Garden in “Il trovatore” he became a regular visitor to The Royal Opera and appeared most memorably there as Iago alongside Kiri Te Kanawa and Plácido Domingo in the Moshinsky production of “Otello” conducted by Sir Georg Solti, which is preserved on DVD. He now has dual Russian-British nationality. Concert appearances have accompanied operatic roles and his return to Covent Garden to sing the short, patriotic role of His Highness in the Royal Opera’s production of “The Tsarina’s Slippers” is now followed by this recital at Wigmore Hall.

Leiferkus doubtless felt at home in the hall where he has triumphed before but the idiom of Lieder seemed foreign to him. Schumann’s Eichendorff “Liederkreis” presents a fundamental problem to interpreters: it hangs together neither as a narrative nor in terms of a unified personality behind its varied substance. An appreciation of the preoccupations of the poet and of his style is the one essential. That was lacking in what was a piecemeal interpretation.

I feared that the now-veteran singer’s characteristically craggy, guttural tone had weakened and lost its bite, while his heavily accented German with its unsuitably dark, muffled vowels caused him to miss the subtle shades of Schumann’s settings. The famously lyrical ‘Mondnacht’ suggested that Leiferkus was now bereft of a natural legato. He was all-too-obviously uncomfortable in the climbing phrases, with tonal surface roughened and scratched and intonation always under threat. The singing here was a trial for the listener and there were other cases where soft high notes sounded threadbare; it was significant that he took a lower option for “Es ist schon spat …” in the Loreley song.

His accompanist was a mixed blessing. Semyon Skigin’s rubato in the last-named song was a thing of beauty and the moonbeams danced delightfully in ‘In der Fremde’, but too often the performers, individually or as a pair, chose to draw out dramatic effect from music and text through slow tempos, beefy fortes and stiff crescendos. ‘Intermezzo’, by no stretch of the imagination a heavy song, began powerfully and ended with an inept accent on the innocuous word “eilig”. Though there is a case for treating ‘Schöne Fremde’ as an effusion of high-flown romanticism, a slow, plodding tempo, a big crescendo in the final verse and a massive postlude from the pianist conveyed a quite different mood.

One can understand the desire to underline the Gothic mystery of ‘Auf einer Burg’. I was, however, unconvinced by the fast speed, pushed on even faster with the description of the petrified knight, nor the pianist’s hammering at the same point but the contrasting pp of the last line and the abrupt ending, as the woman is seen to be weeping at her wedding, was an imaginative and justified interpretation.

There were moments of illumination where singer and pianist came together. ‘Die Stille’ had a light touch, as it should, and the intensity of ‘Wehmut’ was the product of an ideal tempo and a partnership which consistently went to the heart of the poem and its lyrical setting.

Leiferkus seemed determined to bring the cycle to a tumultuous close in ‘Frühlingsnacht’, though the power with which he announced his triumph was more reminiscent of Scarpia claiming possession of Tosca than Eichendorff’s romantic affirmation.

If one was fearful for the singer’s vocal condition before the interval, in the second half, in his true comfort zone of dramatic Russian song, all such reservations disappeared. It was as if a gag had been removed and he was able to communicate naturally and directly, including by expansive movement and gesture, where he had been stiff throughout the Schumann. As if to celebrate his release he opened with Mussorgsky’s “Rayok” (The Peep Show). This may be the longest song in the voice-and-piano repertoire at around 13 minutes; it certainly has myriad opportunities for acting and characterisation. The Master of Ceremonies introduces the scurrilous lampooning of various targets in the Russian musical world of Mussorgsky’s time. Leiferkus conjured up the smug, finger-wagging Professor Nikolay Zaremba, conservative principal of the St Petersburg Conservatoire, who warns his pupils of the superiority of major- over minor-key writing. The infatuation of Feofil Tolstoy with Adelina Patti was uproariously created, his effeminate pose and the stock gestures of the Italian opera singer supporting the dialogue between voice and piano which parodies bel canto style, including a florid cadenza. The haughty critic Alexander Faminstyn was also colourfully caught. The episode concerning the composer Alexander Serov gave the accompanist a chance to quote ironically from him and send up his style, before the pretensions of the whole sad army of musical figures were debunked. Knowing Leiferkus’s dislike for the Soviet regime and the fact that Shostakovich also wrote a “Rayok” (for four voices and chorus), in contempt for the anti-formalist campaign of the later Stalin years, makes one wonder whether the baritone sees an analogy with the not-too-distant past in this work. He received a deserved ovation for his account of it. Unlike Strauss’s “Krämerspiegel” the fact that the specific references have little resonance today did not seem to matter; the colourful, extrovert interpretation saw to that.

A second comic song by Mussorgsky, “The Seminarist”, drew another hilarious personification from the singer. His young student brought a book of Latin nouns with him, from which he periodically recited but he was easily interrupted, eager as he was to tell us about Father Semyon’s daughter, her physical attributes and the beating he took for taking an interest in her during service. Eventually his attempts to return to his studies proved futile and he cast the book aside.

These comic songs and the familiar “Song of the Flea” (given a rollicking, uninhibited performance) framed the composer’s “Songs and Dances of Death”, of which Leiferkus has long been an outstanding exponent. Gone was the restricted tone he had applied to Schumann, replaced by a whole range of vocal resource and not a dramatic trick was missed.

The character of Death appeared in numerous guises. In ‘Lullaby’, the only one of the songs where he is involved in dialogue, Leiferkus portrayed him initially as a fatherly figure, reassuring the mother, then his line acquired a hint of menace, eventually pushing her aside with a sneer and cold-bloodedly extinguishing the baby’s life. His seduction of the unfortunate girl in ‘Serenade’ combined a dark lyric singing line with sinister gestures, most notably the strangling movements of his fingers as he attests that he has her in his grasp. The final capture “ti moya!”, which can be accomplished in a number of ways, was loud and overtly triumphant. In ‘Trepak’ the drunken peasant was much easier prey: Death was able to ease his pressure before the final verse of the poem, in certain confidence of his victory. In complete contrast was the full-voiced imperious roar that he brought to “The Field Marshal”. Where Skigin had gone his own way on several occasions in the Schumann, sometimes with excess of tone and exhibitionism, here he was absolutely united with his partner.

To offer three Tchaikovsky songs in a different idiom – “Again, as before, alone”, “Sunset” and “At the ball” – as encores was probably a wise decision after the hyperactivity with which the formal programme ended. All misgivings from the first half had now been quashed.

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