Alla Ablaberdyeva, Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

How salutary to be reminded that while the British songsmiths of the early 20th century were setting dainty ditties about lads, lasses and lilac trees, their Russian counterparts were cutting to the quick. And how interesting to see what the deft and dense poems of Anna Akhmatova did to the habitually garrulous Prokofiev: his music became deft and dense, too. By bringing to our attention the songs he and Rachmaninov had coincidentally published in 1916, Alla Ablaberdyeva's programme did us a favour even before she'd opened her mouth.

When she did, it was with Rachmaninov's burningly sarcastic "Christ is Risen", which flays the hollowness of state religion. This Uzbek soprano's vocal style seems not of this age: declamatory, rising at moments almost to a shriek and with more vibrato than I would like, it comes from the heart; beauty, per se, is not her goal. But the Rachmaninov songs she chose offered a lovely kaleidoscope of emotion.

Her accompanist was the 19-year-old Andrei Korobeinikov, whose recent win in the Los Angeles Rachmaninov competition is matched by the fact he looks a bit like that composer (minus the scowl). Korobeinikov handled the accompanying piano parts to these songs, and the Prokofiev ones which followed, with lovely aplomb, bringing out the girlfriend's stamping wilfulness in "Hello!", and the hieratic strangeness of "The Grey-Eyed King". It was a shame that the translations, by Ablaberdyeva, sometimes sacrificed faithfulness to Akhmatova's oblique truth for the sake of a rhyme.

The second half began with Shostakovich's Satires, in which Soviet reality and sexual incompatibility are deliciously mocked. The music, in which a direct quote from Beethoven skewed off into barrel-organ bawdy, was, as Ablaberdyeva sang it, a delight.

Rounding things off with Britten's Cabaret Songs - words by W H Auden - Ablaberdyeva revealed her true métier as a comedienne. The music adroitly reflects the seeming artlessness of these powerful poems, one of which is the cinematically immortalised "Stop All the Clocks". In "Tell Me the Truth About Love", Korobeinikov took the boogying refrains at a hurtling pace, with Ablaberdyeva gracefully spinning her melodic line over the top. And in one of her many encores - a song by Glinka - she produced the nuanced delicacy we'd missed earlier on: she'd clearly just needed to warm up.

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