Ekaterina Semenchuk is in such demand around the world for larger-than-life mezzo roles in opera that we don’t often get the chance to hear her as a recitalist. But when we do, it’s always a five-star event. No other mezzo can match her artistry in her native Russian repertoire, and this time she sang a selection from that Russian quintumvirate known as the Mighty Handful, who – with Tchaikovsky – gave Russia its own home-grown tradition in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Their mission was to free Russian music from its German shackles, and to create a style which drew on Russian legend and folk music. Accompanied by the peerless Helmut Deutsch, Semenchuk began with six songs by Rimsky-Korsakov, making the most of their Orientalism and inherent drama, after which came four by Cesar Cui. Sets by Borodin and Balakirev followed, with Musorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death as her grand finale.
Semenchuk’s art is consummate, with complete ease over a huge range, deploying gaiety and delicacy and with a luscious power always held in reserve. At moments we were reminded of the wicked cackle she can evince for folk songs, and in the Musorgsky her dramatic talent came to the fore. ‘Lullaby’ is a dialogue between Death and the mother of a sick child, and the way Semenchuk altered her tone – between bright and brittle, and sepulchrally calm – was riveting. She gave three lovely encores, the last being Tchaikovsky at his most bewitching, but the audience still clamoured for more.