Review: ‘The Mighty Five and Friends’ by the Russian Chamber Art Society at the French Embassy

RCAS's program at La Maison Francaise presented Arias and Art Songs of Borodin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Rubinstein

With the concept of nationalism hovering uneasily in the political air, it was as edifying as it was gratifying to hear four first-rate musicians celebrate in song some of the masterworks of what present-day pundits might label the “Russia first”—or, more precisely, Russian music first—composers of the nineteenth century. Not exclusionary so much as celebratory, the so-called Mighty Five (or “Mighty Handful”), Mily Balakirev, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Borodin, and César Cui, were tired of their own (and their countrymen’s) music getting short shrift with subscribers, for whom classical music meant, more or less, the three Bs and their musical associates and disciples. Dismissing the salesman’s proverbial wisdom, rather than cater to the customers, they decided instead to show them what they were missing.

L-R: Vera Danchenko-Stern, Grigory Soloviov, Zhanna Alkazhova, and Anastasiia Sidorova in the Russian Chamber Art Society's performance of 'The Mighty Five and Friends.' Photo courtesy of Vera Danchenko-Stern.
L-R: Vera Danchenko-Stern, Grigory Soloviov, Zhanna Alkazhova, and Anastasiia Sidorova in the Russian Chamber Art Society’s performance of ‘The Mighty Five and Friends.’ Photo courtesy of Vera Danchenko-Stern.

The Russian Chamber Art Society’s season finale did much the same for those of us who might be familiar with the orchestral works of the three most famous of the five but come up short when it comes to their works for solo voice. Infused with, and at times derived from, the folk music traditions of their childhoods, yet adhering to the (then) current compositional styles while looking forward to those they would help define, the nearly two dozen songs selected for the program featured three outstanding soloists: Zhanna Alkhazova, soprano; Anastasiia Sidorova, mezzo-soprano; and Grigory Soloviov, bass. They were joined by (and often seemed musically fused to) the RCAS’s founder and artistic director, Vera Danchenko-Stern, on piano.

The concert opened with three songs by a philosophical outlier of the group (perceived by some as an oppositional one as well), the Germanically inclined (and trained) pianist and St. Petersburg Conservatory founder Anton Rubinstein. Rubinstein’s music, though largely forgotten today, nonetheless approached, if not matched (and in one case, arguably inspired, at least thematically) that of his more illustrious, nationalist compatriots.

In “The Ballad,” its simple but evocative lyrics by novelist Ivan Turgenev (whose work Henry James and Joseph Conrad are reported to have preferred to Tolstoy’s and Dostoyevsky’s) depicting an exchange between a shackled, wounded prisoner of war and his mocking captor, Soloviov’s quiet, contemplative tone rose to resonant heights of anguished despair as the soldier, then descended to snarling mockery as the guard. The song’s ending high note, defiant and ringing (and harking back to Rubinstein’s Italianate influences; think verismo opera) Soloviov carried off with aplomb.

As did all four performers with each song throughout the evening, although it was not the singers’ tessitura, or their accompanist’s flying fingers, that made the strongest impression. Rather, it was the way in which their technical proficiency served a nuanced storytelling and musical through-line, their narrative ease and assurance causing the songs by different composers on the joys and pains that love (be it of person or of country) can bring, to seem not so much individual works of art as parts of a personally and deeply felt national chronicle. (Indeed, Danchenko-Stern’s keen attentiveness to each phrase, sometimes even down to the syllable, evinced an intimate knowledge not just of the notes she was playing but of the ones the soloists were singing, and the performance, national, and compositional history behind them.)

Alkhazova, in Rubinstein’s “The Singer,” with lyrics by Pushkin, conveyed the sorrow of love lost and mourned with a quiet richness and gentleness of tone, while Sidorova shaped a dramatic arc of longing and consummation with the same composer and poet’s “The Night” (also known as “My Voice for You” and familiar from film scores of the forties).

Zhanna Alkazhova in the Russian Chamber Art Society's performance of 'The Mighty Five and Friends.' Photo courtesy of Vera Danchenko-Stern.
Zhanna Alkazhova in the Russian Chamber Art Society’s performance of ‘The Mighty Five and Friends.’ Photo courtesy of Vera Danchenko-Stern.

The next six songs, by Rimsky-Korsakov, were split between the soprano and the mezzo. The first, “Not the Wind Blowing from the Height,” was sung by Alkhazova with a sweet purity and clarity, a skillfully controlled vibrato, and an exquisite ease that made the high notes, from pianissimo to mezzo forte, seem effortless. The last of these, the brief but affectingly melancholy “On Georgian Hills,” Sidorova infused with emotional urgency and youthful sadness.

Soloviov excelled in the dark and angry “The False Note” and “Poisoned Are My Songs,” both by Borodin, and was deliciously evil in Mussorgsky’s “Song of the Flea” (famously sung by Mephistopheles). His malevolent “Ha, ha, ha, ha” was both relentlessly declamatory and infectiously humorous in spite of itself, his eyes glittering madly, his mouth opened wide, lips curled to expose a wolf-like set of teeth.

There was more, much more. Alkhazova’s masterful “Marfa’s Aria” from Mussorgsky’s The Tsar’s Bride, was distinguished by a complementarity of rich, round, warm sounds and fresh, light, clear, graceful ones, topped off by a ringing, thrillingly brilliant high note. Sidorova’s “Lyubasha’s Aria” from the same opera, her carefully modulated voice and alternately flashing and stricken eyes drawing an unsparing picture of the young woman’s jealousy and doubt, was equally masterful. These are just two examples, but will give you an idea of the delight and excitement that await music lovers at the Russian Chamber Art Society’s concerts. See you at the next one!

The Mighty Five and Friends played Friday, April 12, 2019, at 7:30 p.m. at the Embassy of France / La Maison Française, 4101 Reservoir Road, Washington, DC. For information about the Russian Chamber Art Society, go online.