Sunday 19 April 2015

Mikhail Kuzmin’s vocal and choral writing brings intensity, poetry and passion that is very appealing on a new release from Naxos

One is more likely to find the name Mikhail Alexeevich Kuzmin (1872-1936) in a dictionary of literature than of music. Born in Yaroslavl, Russia, he grew up in St. Petersburg and studied music at the St. Petersburg Conservatory under Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Ill health brought an end to his musical studies.

Some biographical accounts tend to give the incorrect image of Kuzmin largely giving up music in favour of writing yet he wrote a large amount of music, mainly small scale vocal works. His principle collections of verse are Aleksandriyskiye pensi (1906), Seti (1908), Osenniye ozyora (1912), Glinyanyve Golubki (1914) and Paraboly (1922).

Yuri Serov and the Karelia State Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra  have recorded some of Kuzmin’s incidental music for stage plays as well as some sacred songs for voice and orchestra on a new release from Naxos

Serov and his orchestra are joined on this disc by mezzo-soprano, Mila Shkirtil and
the Petrozavodsk State University Male Choir.

Kuzmin wrote the music for the play The Society of Honoured Bell Ringers by Evegeny Zamyatin (1884-1937) in 1925. First produced at the Maly Theatre in St. Petersburg, it concerns the fun loving Irishman O’Kelly who comes into conflict with a member of the virtuous group known as the The Society of Honoured Bell Ringers.

The Introduction: Adagio (Act I) opens with a mellifluous orchestral theme with an organ adding to the mellow texture. This fine noble melody rises up with a melody that sticks in the mind. A brass fanfare opens Interlude: Con moto before the strings join, then timpani, as the music moves ahead with determination. The timpani and percussion continue to underpin the music. The strings bring more flowing passages as do woodwind but, nevertheless, the marshal rhythm dominates.

The organ alone plays the section entitled Appearance. Adagio which takes the melody from the introduction. Introduction (Act III) brings a wind ensemble in a simple attractive melody. A buoyant theme leads the Interlude: Allegro (Act III) forward, rhythmic and lively, with a central flowing section where a piano adds to the texture and colour of the music. The opening, rather direct, jolly theme returns to lead to the end of this section.  

In the Interlude: Moderato (Act IV) the orchestra is quickly joined by the organ. Another instrument joins which initially I thought to be a trombone but turns out to be a bass trumpet. As the melody moves forward, the bass trumpet adds a really distinctive flavour, before the music suddenly ends. The Final March: Allegretto takes off decisively but is not long enough to develop.

Mikhail Lermontov’s (1814-1841) drama Masquerade inspired a number of composers to write operas and incidental music including Anton Rubinstein, Glazunov and Khachaturian. Kuzmin’s music came in 1911 of which four excerpts are given here. There is a lively, light textured Polka that has no pretentions to depth yet is attractive on its own terms. The strings introduce a lovely melody for Nina's Romance before mezzo-soprano Mila Shkirtil joins, adding a lovely Russian flavour in this fine romantic setting.

A fine Waltz follows, eloquently orchestrated with fine moments for the woodwind before the Final Chorus when the Petrozavodsk State University Male Choir join for ‘Give them peace Holy God’; a fine, yet melancholy setting.

The sections for mezzo-soprano and chorus in the music for Masquerade indicate that Kuzmin is at his best when setting the human voice. This impression is reinforced in his Sacred Songs for Voice and Orchestra (1901-03) a setting of words by the composer.

Descent Of The Virgin Into Hell brings mezzo-soprano Mila Shkirtil in a lovely setting that builds beautifully with some fine orchestration that adds so much to the character and atmosphere of this music. This mezzo provides some fine, passionate moments and much poetry. The music rises in drama in the orchestra before falling to a lovely vocal section to end quietly.  

The Old Man and The Lion is full of intensity and deep feeling from this mezzo where, towards the coda, she and the orchestra find a lovely sadness. Mila Shkirtil brings some lovely timbres to Doomsday again full of intense feeling with the orchestra building in drama and rising to a tremendous, passionate peak before the quiet coda.

These are fine songs, full of Russian flavour finely sung by Mila Shkirtil.

Ernst Toller (1893-1939) was a German dramatist with communist beliefs whose plays were very popular in the Soviet Union. Kuzmin wrote his incidental music for the play Hinkemann the German in 1923. The play concerns the difficulties experienced by the injured soldier, Hinkemann, returning from the First World War. Toller himself was wounded and invalided out of the Great War in 1916; an experience he, no doubt, drew on.

Introduction and Soldiers' Chorus opens with a fanfare before the orchestra develops the theme rising to a peak before falling to a halt. The Petrozavodsk State University Male Choir then enters in a rather direct chorus before alternating with the orchestra and drums before leading to the end.

The Pastoral has a gentle swaying theme over which woodwind play before the Interlude – Waltz rises in energy and spirit in a peasant style dance rhythm. A more flowing melody is heard but it soon gives way to a heavily accented waltz.

The same theme is taken by various instruments in the Introduction (Act II) though here it is light and nicely pointed. Country Dance brings a light and airy variation on the theme for piano and woodwind, soon joined by the rest of the orchestra and a heavily accented, rhythmic, slow and steady Procession with some later little dissonances that are quite unexpected.  

A piano underpins the rhythm in Tango but, nevertheless, has a fine forward flow before the Final March arrives with a direct and simple march rhythm that could act as a ‘toy soldier’ march.

Mikhail Alexeevich Kuzmin is an intriguing composer. His incidental music is in a lighter vein though attractive for all its simplicity. His vocal and choral writing is quite another thing, at times bringing intensity, poetry and passion that is very appealing.

Lovers of Russian music will surely wish to explore this new disc. The Karelia State Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra under Yuri Serov provide fine performances with only the occasional intonation problems in the lower strings revealing them to be not a top class orchestra.

They are nicely recorded and there are informative booklet notes as well as full texts and English translations.

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