Modest Musorgsky was too wild and dissolute to marry and procreate, but he loved being around children, and children loved being around him.
This mutual empathy gave rise to a unique song-cycle entitled ‘Dyetskaya’, ‘The Nursery’; never was the Russian language more faithfully set to music. ‘Whatever speech I hear,’ he wrote to Rimsky-Korsakov, ‘my brain immediately sets to work out a musical expression of that speech.’ Rather than ‘writing’ his texts, he claimed to have ‘overheard’ them; thus equipped with little ribbons of speech, he turned the curves of their intonation into melodic lines, and let the constantly shifting metre of his music reflect the shifting metre of reality. The result was songs which are neither ‘to’ nor ‘about’ children, but songs they might have made up themselves; each needs to be enacted.
In one the infant protagonist asks his nanny to tell him about the bogeyman, while in another his rocking horse carries him away like the wind. He gets blamed for the havoc his kitten plays with a ball of wool, and he tells a wide-eyed story about the mysterious death of a beetle. Fleeting, mercurial, and constantly skirting archness, these songs pose a challenge which one expected mezzo Magdalena Kozena and pianist Andras Schiff would rise to effortlessly, not least because they both hail from the right part of the world.
Kozena skilfully rendered the dialogue between child and adult, and got wittily under the skin of each encounter, but she sometimes missed the essential lightness. Schiff, meanwhile, had none of that that lightness, preferring to stay within his Germanic great-pianist comfort-zone. And thus missing the point: what we needed was not a great pianist but a great accompanist, which implies a completely different mind-set.
The rest of their recital was musically fascinating, if marred by the same limitation. Kozena’s delivery of Janacek’s ‘Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs’ was captivating, and she gave Dvorak’s rarely-performed ‘Biblical Songs’ a wonderfully plangent inwardness; the way she sang them, each of Bartok’s ‘Village Scenes’ had cut-diamond perfection. Her whitened tone ideally offset the modal harmonies, and her sound was wonderfully vibrant, but she needed an accompanist capable of weaving a corresponding enchantment around her: in a word, charm. But Schiff despises charm, as he proceeded to show in the most unmagical rendition of Janacek’s ‘In the Mists’ I’ve ever heard.