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MEZZO BRINGS MUSSORGSKY’S SONGS OF DEATH TO LIFE AT U.

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Mussorgsky's "Songs and Dances of Death." For more than 100 years it has stood as the greatest of all Russian song cycles, and Tuesday it made for a stunning finale to the concluding Nova Chamber Music Series program of the season at the Museum of Fine Arts.

The singer? Utah's own Lani Poulson, a regular guest on this series. But there was nothing routine about her presentation of these songs, either in terms of the order - a departure from the usual chronological sequence - or her uncanny grasp of their drama.For the real singer here is death, as envisioned by Mussorgsky and the poet Golenishchev-Kutuzov in four of its guises, from the poignant dialogue with the anxious mother at the cradle of her dying child ("Lullaby") to the warrior-captain triumphantly surveying the field of the dead in "The Field Marshall."

In between came the seductive song to the young maiden outside her window ("Serenade") and the dance with the drunken peasant in the snowy wood ("Trepak"). But whatever the setting, Poulson's resplendent mezzo cut to its heart, easefully encompassing the vocal demands and at the same time emphasizing the spoken quality of the text, here in the original Russian.

Nor did pianist Barlow Bradford disappoint in the accompaniments, his playing conjuring up everything from the pale moonlight of the "Serenade" to the ferocious depiction of war that introduces the terrible majesty of the final song.

Earlier the depths were similarly plumbed by the two of them, with an assist fram bassist Jamie Allyn, in Glinka's "Doubt" - more conventional than the Mussorgsky, but equally involving in its way - and the heartfelt strains of Tchaikovsky's "I Will Tell You Nothing," the second of his Op. 60 songs.

Counterpointing that were the wit and childlike imagination Poulson brought to Stravinsky's "Cat's Cradle" songs, the angularity and often serpentine nature of the writing being underlined by clarinetists Daron Bradford, Christie Lundquist and Kathy Pope.

Less successful was the Faure grouping that opened the evening. Not that there weren't things to admire here as well. Take the breathless excitement of "Green" or the somber distance of "Les Berceaux" - here effectively terraced - with its moving hint of finality. But the voice itself seemed a bit less focused in these affecting morceaux, however well attuned both singer and pianist were to their shifting moods.

Just the same, they were better attuned, and more precisely meshed, in these six songs than were violinist Barbara Scowcroft, violist Ralph Matson, cellist Ellen Bridger and pianist Marjorie Janove in the performance that followed of the Faure C minor Piano Quartet.

To my ears there was no shortage of emotion, either in the outer movements, here throbbingly expressive, or the Scherzo and Adagio, the former highlighted by Janove's brightly pointed pianism and a nicely subdued central section. But amid the passion one heard little suavity or cohesion, as time and again things refused to jell, or even stay in tune.

In short, give this one to the Russians. But not to the printed program, which despite the inclusion of Cyrillic titles, somehow managed to omit the movements of the piano quartet and truncate the text of the final Mussorgsky song.