Russian Songs – Songs for Children
Music which is in some sense 'about' children is different from music designed 'for' children, but both are originally 19th-century inventions which have taken on a new character and a new importance with the conscious cult of the child. There is too often a note of archness or sentimentality in the 19th-century attitude to children (not absent entirely from Schumann's Kinderszenen or Bizet's Jeux d'enfants) but Mussorgsky almost completely avoids both in these songs. Even "At bedtime", which sails near the wind, is a very long way from "Christopher Robin" by A. A. Milne. It is their realism that saves these Nursery Songs, and Elisabeth Söderström emphasizes this by her lifelike distinction between child and nanny. She darkens and 'ages' her tone-colour and her verbal enunciation with great skill and enunciates her (Russian) words with excellent clarity, which in its turn communicates itself to her vocal production.
Ashkenazy is an admirable pianist and makes the piano part of the Nursery Songs vividly illustrative. Like most soloists playing with a singer, he is inclined on occasion to make the piano part too prominent (notably in "The Beetle" and "The Hobby-Horse", where the tempo also seems unrealistically fast and suggests a motor-bicycle rather than a horse). Prokofiev's Ugly Duckling almost amounts to a solo cantata and the musical setting is absolutely in Mussorgsky's manner, which Prokofiev never employed again. In fact without a text (and a translation - both happily supplied with this disc) this is almost impossible to follow, every change of tempo and rhythm being determined by the dramatic development of the story, which is Hans Andersen's adapted by the composer himself. Gretchaninov's Five Children's Songs date from 1920 and are less paintakingly realistic than Mussorgsky, though strongly influenced by him. The third of these songs ("The Lane") and the fifth ("Wind's Lullaby") show the singer's perfect vocal control at pianissimo and the exquisite clarity of tone and enunciation.