Sergei Leiferkus at Wigmore Hall

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

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, schˆnes 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 ‘Schˆne
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

image_description=Sergei Leiferkus [Photo: Askonas Holt]
product_title=Schumann: Liederkreis (Op.39)
Musorgsky: The peep-show; Songs and Dances of Death; The Seminarist; Mefistopheles’ Song.
product_by=Sergei Leiferkus, baritone; Semyon Skigin, piano. Wigmore Hall, London. Tuesday 15 December 2009.
product_id=Above: Sergei Leiferkus [Photo: Askonas Holt]