Recitals of Russian song don't have to be suffocated with doom and gloom. Neither do they have to be built upon the works of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. In this recital, Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk focused on the song repertoire of five composers known collectively as the 'Moguchaya kuchka' (The Mighty Handful). While the first half wasn't without a sense of wistfulness and heartache, there were several numbers on the lighter, lyrical side of the repertoire. After the interval, the mood darkened and death stalked Wigmore Hall in the form of Modest Mussorgsky's great cycle Songs and Dances of Death.

Ekaterina Semenchuk © Sheila Rock
Ekaterina Semenchuk
© Sheila Rock

Driven by self-appointed leader Mily Balakirev, the Mighty Handful was a group of composers, some self-taught, who conspired to build a national musical style, promoting Russian music based on traditional Russian melodies rather than following western examples. Some of them led double lives; Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was a naval officer, César Cui was in the army, while Alexander Borodin was renowned as a chemist. They are famed now for their operas or large scale orchestral works. Nevertheless, between them they wrote over 500 songs, from which Semenchuk selected her programme.

A sextet of Rimsky-Korsakov songs opened proceedings, from which it was immediately obvious that Semenchuk, in a white gown adorned with an enormous black bow, had gauged the size of the hall. Reining in her huge mezzo (heard most recently as a full-throttle Azucena at Covent Garden), she revealed a wonderful dynamic range at the softer end of the Richter scale, including a smoky, veiled tone in The evening is gradually fading. Among four Pushkin settings during the evening, The clouds begin to scatter, one of Rimsky’s best-known romances, demonstrated Semenchuk's even emission, her long phrases stretching effortlessly, while The lark sings louder allowed her to rattle off some faster music.

César Cui is best remembered – if at all – for his collection of songs. Of the four on offer here, Semenchuk’s floated high pianissimos beautifully in I touched the bloom lightly. The most memorable though was The Fountain Statue at Tsarskoye Selo, telling of a girl who drops a pitcher of water, which breaks; as the girl sits contemplating the broken jug, waters pour endlessly from it – a miracle. Helmut Deutsch's rippling piano accompaniment here was a delight; how lovely it was to have the piano angled so that those of us on the 'wrong' side of the hall could appreciate his artistry.

Regal of bearing, Semenchuk barely moved from the neck down all evening, aside from a raised fist in Borodin's My songs are filled with poison. The storytelling was all in her voice, a lighter moment of comedy coming in Some folks' houses where the poet bewails his cramped home, with soup full of cockroaches. Five songs by Balakirev made a strong impression for their tender yearning, especially The Rock, based on the same Lermentov poem which later inspired Rachmaninov's symphonic poem.

The recital's second half was devoted to the Songs and Dances of Death, Semenchuk returning to the stage in a scarlet gown. Mussorgsky was the most original composer of the five – ahead of his time – and these four earthy settings depict death in various guises claiming a sleeping baby, a sick girl, a drunken peasant. Vividly sung, Semenchuk never resorted to cheap dramatisation or crooning effects. Then, in The Field Marshal, she finally let rip as Death imperiously claims a whole battalion of dead soldiers. To compensate for a slightly short recital, Semenchuk offered a trio of encores, of which Rachmaninov's How fair this spot, radiantly sung, was the luminous highlight.