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Gabriela Beňačková: Slovak Songs
Mikuláš SCHNEIDER-TRNAVSKÝ (1881 – 1958) Songs about Mother: If Only They Knew; Mother; If I Knew; Little Flower: Far and Wide; The Nightingale; A Lovely Dream; Student Period Songs: The Settler; The Bowed Rose; Your Shy Eyes; The Girl Is Being Married; From My Heart: The Withering Tree; The Cuckoo; Roses
Sylvie BODOROVÁ (b. 1954) The Setting Sun – Seven Slovak Folk Songs for Two Voices, Harp and Piano: Bad News; I Gave Him a Little Feather; Sundown; Not Ploughing, Nor Sowing; Blow, Wind, Blow; Why?; Ask Balazs
Bonus: Two Folk Songs: Forsaken by Her Lover; Nightingale’s Song
Gabriela Beňačková (soprano); Štefan Margita (tenor) (Bodorová); Katarína Bachmannová (piano); Kateřina Englichová (harp)(Bororová); Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Bohumil Gregor (bonus tracks)
Recorded in Lichtenstein Palace, Prague, November 2005. Bonus tracks: Czech Radio Prague, live recording, Dvořák Hall, Prague Rudolfinum, 1 February 1986.
ZENTIVA UP 0001-2 131 [57:11]
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Here offering brand new recordings is a disc of wonderful Slovak songs performed by one of the most feted Slovak sopranos of recent times. Gabriela Beňačková has for many years been a great favourite of mine, first and foremost in Czech opera. Her Supraphon recordings of Mařenka in The Bartered Bride, Rusalka and several Janáček roles are definitive readings. Let’s not overlook her in Italian and Russian repertoire where she was in the front rank as shown in a couple of recital records. Now here she is, well past 60, in a lovely programme of unknown songs. Her beautiful voice is still in fine fettle. Of course the years haven’t passed unnoticed. This is evident from a wider vibrato, noticeable mostly in the middle and not so high register, while her top range is largely unaffected. In these intimate songs she shows, even more than in opera, her care with nuance. Her pianissimo singing is a thing of great beauty; time and again she finishes a phrase on the thinnest thread of tone. Admirable!

Of course one can hear a difference when listening to the two bonus tracks, recorded in 1986. At that stage her voice was in its absolute prime but it was always vibrant and apart from that middle register vibrato - it’s definitely not a wobble! - she has lost surprisingly little. It is still a youthful voice but with some becoming maturity added.

Mikuláš Schneider-Trnavský was a schoolmate and friend of Zoltan Kodály. On the evidence of these songs he was less adventurous than his one-year-younger colleague and firmly rooted in a traditional tonal language. Many of these songs could just as well be folk-songs, but so ravishingly beautiful are they in their simplicity that one does not mind the absence of bolder harmonies and elaborated accompaniments. The melodic freshness goes straight to the heart and most are imbued with Slavonic melancholy. They are from different periods of Schneider-Trnavský’s life. The first three are from his last collection, Songs about Mother, dating from 1940, while the next three were written in 1905, although not grouped together as Little Flowers until 1922. The four Student Period Songs are even earlier, dating from 1902 and 1904. Your Shy Eyes seems to be one of the composer’s earliest surviving works. Maybe the most individual of his songs are those from the collection From My Heart, written about 1918. They are settings of poems by Ferko Urbánek. The first two have a charmingly syncopated rhythmic lilt, The Cuckoo showing that the eponymous Slovakian bird sings the same interval as cuckoos everywhere else. The longest song on the whole disc, Roses, may also be the lyrical highpoint. I couldn’t withstand the temptation to replay it at once.

When we come to Sylvie Bodorová we are treated to real folk-songs. The cycle The Setting Sun was actually written for this recording and specifically with these two singers in mind. They are more daring harmonically. Several of them are lively and thrilling, the short Not Ploughing, Nor Sowing, for example and the somewhat longer Why? The swinging Ask Balazs brings the cycle to an exciting end, while as a contrast Sundown is really beautiful and "catchy". The use of both piano and harp creates ingenious sonorities to the accompaniments. Sometimes the two voices are left on their own to intertwine a cappella. Ms Beňačková is here partnered by tenor Štefan Margita, who has a bright attractive voice, capable of really beautiful soft singing. I look forward to hearing more from him.

As a bonus we are treated to two extremely beautiful folk songs, arranged for orchestra by Jaroslav Krček. They were recorded in 1986 in quite different acoustics. Both are more distant and with more space around the voice and this lends it an even fuller and rounder quality. The 2005 recordings on the other hand are made with the voice almost on top of the microphones, which may boost the vibrato unnecessarily. The piano is recessed; ideally they should have been more evenly balanced, but this is a minor criticism. It does not detract from listeners’ enjoyment of these lovely songs. Whether Ms Beňačková’s vibrato will be an irritant is a matter of personal taste – I am fully aware of it but I can overlook it.

The booklet has good essays on the composers and artists but no texts or translations, something I regret ... but I can overlook that, too.

Göran Forsling



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