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S&H Recital review

Tchaikovsky / Rachmaninov / Mahler / de Falla: Olga Borodina / Dmitri Yefimov, Barbican Hall, Wednesday November 21st. (M.E.)

Ah, the Celebrity Recital! The hall is packed, most of the audience sit there gazing into space during the singing, and many of them do not applaud at all between the groups or even at the close of the first half, but at the end, they hurl themselves into an orgy of bellowing and stamping. Do they feel it's what they have to do? Presumably, since no one who regularly attends recitals at a high level could possibly have reacted to this one with anything more than a pleasant indifference. The Diva sweeps off the stage after each little group of three or four songs, leaving those of us who are used to hearing the greatest singers of the day with plenty of opportunity to mutter "So what?"

Olga Borodina is often said to have one of the most beautiful voices of our time, and indeed it is a lovely instrument, supple and refined, and of a lyrical rather than dramatic character. Her first song, Tchaikovsky's "Orchevo?" ("Why?") was the high point of the recital; she sang the melancholy phrases with an ideal blend of introspection and confession, and impressed with the firmness of her legato line. From then on, however, she failed to engage me, until the de Falla songs, which seemed to inspire both her and her pianist. Throughout both the remaining Tchaikovsky songs and the Rachmaninov set which followed, her singing was merely accurate and beautiful; she sang of the anguish of suffering the pangs of unrequited love, of the ecstatic joy of a glorious union of lovers against the backdrop of idyllic nature, and of the sweet intimacy of motherhood, in exactly the same warm, bland tones, and after a while they all merged into one another. Even "To blylo ranneyu vesnoy" ("It was in the early spring.") which evokes Schumann in its ambiguity of emotion, was sung like a lullaby. Dmitri Yefimov gave her musical and sympathetic support.

A recent critic wondered why she had chosen to sing Mahler, since her German was "execrable." I would not go quite so far, and it's certainly better than, say, the Russian of many German and English singers, but she is not really convincing in this language; for one thing, she has a bit of trouble distinguishing "Lied" from "Leid," which one could say is a fairly crucial distinction in this material.

To my ears, the Rueckert Lieder will always suffer if performed with a piano rather than the full orchestra, and will not gain much from being sung by a woman, no matter how fruity her tone. She did nothing wrong; it was just a pleasant wash of sound, with very little attempt at evoking the atmosphere and emotions of the poems. Anyone who heard Matthias Goerne sing these songs with the Concertgebouw last year, will never forget the experience, especially the enraptured bliss of "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" and the ecstatic fervour of "Herr! ueber Tod und Leben," but I have to say that I already have difficulty in recalling any individual phrases as sung by Borodina. Yefimov did his best at the piano, but the sound could never be as full as was needed.

The De Falla set was a different matter. These are slight pieces, but they have a certain charm, especially in the guitar-like piano parts and their ability to conjure up a mood or a feeling with very sparse means. Borodina seemed much more at home here, and only now did I feel that she had engaged me; until this point, she had miscalculated the level of intensity needed to do so, but here her singing was not merely warm and beautiful but word-sensitive and characterful. I could finally see why she is so sought-after in opera, but in my view, she is still lacking in some essential qualities as a recitalist. Great singers in this very specialised field have something individual to say, and they say it in such a way as to change one's perceptions of familiar music, but Borodina presents "merely" a lovely voice and an attractive presence. It appeared that much of the audience felt the same way, since despite the bellowers, most of them fled as soon as they could, having been favoured with just the one encore. The concert was broadcast live on Radio 3, and the programme informed us that it was due to end at 9.45 - however, the last note sounded at 9.20, which must have come as a bit of a shock - had a more rapturous reception been expected, I wonder?

Melanie Eskenazi

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