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Seen and Heard Recital Review

Dargomïzhsky, Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Balakirev, Shostakovich, Salmanov, Minkov Elena Prokina (soprano), Elena Abeleva (piano), Wigmore Hall, 1pm, Monday March 21st, 2005 (CC)

Talk about star substitutions. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was originally billed for this lunchtime, cancelled and so we had the magnificent Elena Prokina, an international star who sang her native music (she is Odessa-born) with magnificent style. The sheer range of repertoire should have been enough, surely, to entice a full or near-full house. But no, there were inexplicably plenty of spaces. Small matter. Those of us lucky enough to be present were served a feast of Russian song. The thread that ran through the recital was that of a Spanish influence, a proclivity began in Russian music by Glinka. But it was not Glinka that kicked things off.

It was Alexander Dargomïzhsky (1813-1869), a composer best known (almost exclusively known, in fact) for his Pushkin opera, The Stone Guest (1866-9), an opera that has gained bad press for its unrelenting use of arioso. He did, interestingly, write a Rusalka, too. Three Dargomïzhsky songs began the recital, one an aria from The Stone Guest (Laura’s aria, ‘Granada lies enveloped in the mist’). And what a revelation they were. The first, ‘The Sierra Nevada is shrouded in mist’ introduced Prokina’s rich, full voice and her smooth, legato line. The opera aria, a sweetly hesitant waltz, contrasted with the disturbed, dark sonorities of ‘The night zephyr’. Elena Abeleva’s accompaniments were musical and unassuming (she played with the lid up and never once even threatened to drown her soloist). Prokina obviously feels a great affection for this composer – two of the three encores came from his pen (the remaining one was the only ‘real’ Spanish music of the concert, some De Falla).

The jollity of Glinka gave relief in the programme. The frivolity of ‘I am here, Inezilla’ (1834) sat well with ‘Oh wonderful girl of mine’ from the 1940 Farewell to St Petersburg. But it was when we got to Tchaikovsky that it was easy to recognize the arrival of truly great music. Two Serenades were Prokina’s offerings (Op. 63 No. 6 of 1887 and Op. 65 No. 1 of the following year). Prokina reveled in lines such as, ‘may your repose … be caressed by the soft sound of kisses’ (from the first Serenade on offer).

Perhaps it was slightly unfair to the other composers to include Tchaikovsky. All offerings were fine specimens of the genre, yet set beside the Tchaikovsky, Balakirev’s Spanish Song (1855) sounded distinctly second-league. The Shostakovich Spanish Songs, Op. 100 of 1956 deserves more frequent airings. Prokina and Abeleva gave us Nos. 1, 2 and 6 of this set of arrangements of traditional Spanish folk-tunes. Immediately Shostakovich takes us into a Spain of the darkest hues, the piano low and resonant. Of course, anything jaunty comes through the Shostakovich-prism, while the contrasting ‘Dream’ provided a measure of peace. Here, as everywhere, Prokina’s diction was perfect.

The Sonnet (1960) by Vadim Salmanov was a real surprise (it comes from his 1960’s song-cycle Spain in the heart). English-only text in the booklet (an extra pound on top of the ticket price – no composer credited, wrong date given for the Shostakovich… no composer given for the Salmanov…) stopped full appreciation of this real cri-de-coeur. And finally, a sequence of songs from Mark Minkov’s Crying of the Guitar (1921), settings of Lorca, jazz-inflected at times, hypnotic at others. Amusing also – but sad – in the final ‘Carmen’, an image of an ageing Carmen whose hair is white and who dreams of ‘suitors of other days’. This last song was the only one in which Prokina really let rip, possibly scaling her voice down for the size of the hall in the rest of the recital.

What a great voice she has. It is always a pleasure to hear her. Weeks can surely have no better start than this Monday lunchtime.

Colin Clarke

Recordings: A very similar recital can be found on Philips 446 708-2. Olga Borodina is accompanied by Semyon Skigin



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