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The scope of this ‘musical adventure’ is not limited to The Five (or Kuchka, mighty Handful or mighty Heap), to which Mussorgsky belonged, but also embraces Serov, Dargomïzhsky, Anton Rubinstein, the highly influential critic Stasov and others. It is a fascinating story of rival ideological factions and vendettas, among which five composers became a group motivated by outside forces – ie the father-figure Balakirev and the equally fervent nationalist Stasov. Like most artistic groups the five individuals shared less and less common ground as they matured. Stephen Walsh has told this story superbly in a consistently gripping narrative. He is fully aware of each composer’s strengths and weaknesses. His account of Cui’s limitations (pages 291-2) could scarcely be improved upon, and his balanced judgments of Mussorgsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov are equally wise. Only someone with the deepest knowledge and understanding could write so lucidly, sympathetically and convincingly.

Walsh’s appreciation of Mussorgsky’s originality (eg in The Nursery – page 196 onwards) is admirable, while the accounts of his laborious progress on Boris Godunov, and Borodin’s on the never-completed Prince Igor, are detailed yet vivid. Both composers were horribly disorganised for completely different reasons and their limited creative achievement means that in each case we have been deprived of further riches. Rimsky-Korsakov, on the other hand, completed much, but again Walsh hits the nail on the head in saying ‘there is something a bit too respectable about [him], a slightly self- satisfied correctness of musical deportment which shouts out as a limitation’. One could never accuse Mussorgsky (in his greatest works) of being ‘too respectable’, and he justifiably emerges as the true hero of the book – ‘if Musorgsky had written nothing but Boris Godunov he would still be a towering figure’. Near the end Walsh assesses the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov upon Stravinsky and the influence of Mussorgsky upon Debussy, again Stravinsky, and Shostakovich.

I confidently predict that this wonderful book will be among the pick of the year.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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