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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873 – 1943)
Complete Songs

Joan Rodgers (soprano), Maria Popescu (mezzo), Alexandre Naoumenko (tenor), Sergei Leiferkus (bass)
Howard Shelley (piano)
rec. St. Michael’s Church, Highgate, London. 1994-95
Russian texts enclosed. Translations available at this site:
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 8531 [3 CDs: 76:01 + 71:54 + 68:00]

Experience Classicsonline

CD 1

At the gates of the holy cloister [3:04]
Nothing shall I say to you [1:49]
Again you are bestirred, my heart [2:09]
April! A festive day in the spring [2:04]
Dusk was falling [2:39]
Song of the disenchanted [2:59]
The flower died [3:19]
Do you remember the evening? [2:31]
O, no, I beg you, do not leave Op. 4, no. 1 (1890-93) [1:45]
Morning Op. 4, no. 2 (1890-93) [1:49]
In the silence of the secret night Op. 4, no. 3 (1890-93) [2:43]
Sing not, O lovely one Op. 4, no. 4 (1890-93) [4:20]
Oh, my field Op. 4, no. 5 (1890-93) [4:03]
It wasn't long ago, my friend Op. 4, no. 6 (1890-93) [1:49]
Water Lily Op. 8, no 1 (1893) [1:17]
My child, your beauty is that of a flower op 8, no. 2 (1893) [1:39]
Thoughts, reflection Op. 8, no. 3 (1893) [3:01]
I fell in love, to my sorrow Op. 8, no. 4 (1893) [2:19]
A dream Op. 8, no. 5 (1893)  [1:22]
Prayer Op. 8, no. 6 (1893)  [3:14]
I await you Op. 14, no 1 (1896) [1:46]
Small island Op. 14, no. 2 (1896)   [2:11]
How fleeting is delight in love Op. 14, no. 3 (1896)   [1:32]
I was with her Op. 14, no. 4 (1896)   [1:16]
Summer Nights Op. 14, no. 5 (1896)  [1:36]
You are so loved by all Op. 14, no. 6 (1896) [2:05]
Do not believe me, friend Op. 14, no. 7 (1896) [1:35]
Oh, do not grieve Op. 14, no. 8 (1896) [2:56]
She is as beautiful as midday Op. 14, no. 9 (1896) [2:35]
In my soul Op. 14, no. 10 (1896) [2:34]
Spring torrents Op. 14, no. 11(1896) [2:10]
It is time Op. 14, no. 12 (1896)  [1:33]
CD 2
Were you hiccoughing, Natasha? [1:33]
Night [3:10]
Fate Op. 21, no. 1 (1902) [7:09]
By a fresh grave Op. 21, no. 2 (1902)  [1:47]
Twilight Op. 21, no. 3 (1902) [2:04]
They replied Op.21 no.4 (1902)   [1:45]
Lilacs Op. 21, no. 5 (1902) [1:59]
Fragment from A. Musset Op. 21, no. 6 (1902)  [1:53]
How peaceful Op. 21, no. 7 (1902) [2:07]
On the death of a siskin Op. 21, no. 8 (1902)   [2:29]
Melody Op. 21, no. 9 (1902)  [3:00]
Before the icon Op. 21, no. 10 (1902) [3:20]
I am not a prophet Op. 21, no. 11 (1902)  [1:29]
How pained I am Op. 21, no. 12 (1902) [1:45]
There are many sounds Op. 26. no 1 (1906) [2:28]
All was taken from me Op. 26, no. 2(1906)  [0:56]
We shall rest Op. 26, no. 3 (1906)  [2:13]
Two farewells Op. 26, no. 4 (1906)   [4:27]
Let us leave, my sweet Op. 26, no. 5 (1906)  [2:18]
Christ is risen Op.26 no.6 (1906)  [2:46]
To my children Op. 26, no. 7 (1906)  [3:28]
I beg for mercy Op. 26, no. 8 (1906) [1:12]
I am alone again Op. 26, no. 9 (1906) [1:46]
At my window Op. 26, no. 10 (1906) [2:54]
The fountain Op.26 no.11 (1906) [1:22]
Night is sorrowful Op. 26, no. 12 (1906) [2:20]
Yesterday we met Op. 26, no. 13 (1906)  [2:54]
The Ring Op. 26, no. 14 (1906)  [2:32]
All passes Op. 26, no. 15 (1906)   [2:32]
CD 3
Letter to K.S. Stanislavsky [3:16]
The muse Op. 34, no. 1 (1912) [4:10]
In the soul of each of us Op. 34, no. 2 (1912)  [2:15]
The storm Op. 34, no. 3 (1912) [3:36]
A passing breeze Op. 34, no. 4 (1912)   [3:36]
Arion Op.34 no.5 (1912) [2:48]
The raising of lazarus Op. 34, no. 6 (1912) [2:14]
It cannot be Op. 34, no. 7 (1912) [1:35]
Music Op. 34, no. 8 (1912)  [2:23]
You knew hin Op. 34, no. 9 (1912)  [2:13]
I remember this day Op. 34, no. 10 (1912)   [1:33]
The herald Op. 34, no. 11 (1912)  [2:52]
What is happiness Op. 34, no. 12 (1912)  [2:12]
Dissonance Op. 34, no. 13 (1912)  [6:00]
Vocalise Op. 34, no. 14 (1912)   [6:04]
From the gospel of St. John [1:22]
At the night in my garden Op. 38, no. 1 (1916) [1:48]
To her Op. 38, no. 2 (1916) [2:50]
Daisies Op. 38, no. 3 (1916) [2:15]
The pied piper Op. 38, no. 4 (1916) [2:30]
Sleep Op. 38, no. 5 (1916)  [3:20]
'Au "Op. 38, no. 6 (1916)  [2:21]
A prayer [2:33]
All glory to God [1:58]

The songs of Rachmaninov, 85 in toto, span a period of 27 years. The earliest were composed in 1890 when he was seventeen, the last ones in 1917. This was the year when he left Russia and settled in the USA. Apparently his song-writing was so intimately associated with his native land and culture that he felt unable to produce anything in his new country, so different was it in lifestyle, geography and attitudes.

A very Russian melancholy permeates a majority of his songs. Some would still maintain that it is more sentimentality than deep melancholy and I can sometimes feel that certain songs are close to being syrupy. That said, I also sense honest feelings and can feel affinity with his melancholy, coming from the same ‘belt of gloom’ that covers the northernmost part of Europe and includes, besides Russia, also Finland, Sweden and Norway. There is also a fair share of lively and/or dramatic songs.

The piano part is almost constantly a source of delight, Rachmaninov seldom refrained from spectacular piano writing even when he wrote his songs. Thus it is a special treat to have as accompanist the superb Rachmaninov specialist Howard Shelley throughout the three well-filled discs. He never misses an opportunity to highlight felicities in the piano part and neither does he scout over the occasional bombast. In fact there are moments where Shelley’s piano masks the singers. But this is really neither his nor the singers’ fault. Whether it is the generous acoustics of St. Michael’s Church or the unfortunate positioning of the microphones I can’t tell. Being an original Chandos production, licensed to Brilliant Classics, the team of Brian Couzens and Mike George should indeed be reliable – and they certainly are to a great extent.

The songs are presented in strictly chronological order, which is excellent for a reference issue like this one. It also makes the earliest songs emerge as talented but slightly immature. There is a marked difference when we reach the songs with opus numbers. Listening through the whole lot in three or four sittings was highly interesting. Despite having a fairly solid acquaintance with Rachmaninov’s songs, this traversal left me with many new impressions. The last two preceding Op. 4, which were his first published songs, (CD 1 tr. 7 and 8) were nice acquaintances; the expressive Op 8 No. 3 Thoughts, reflections (CD 1 tr. 17) was another. I also appreciated the restrained In my soul (CD 1tr 30) and there were a number of others that were new to me.

The choice of singers and the allocation of songs to them is ingenious. Rachmaninov wrote many of his songs for specific singers and Chandos selected singers of the same category for this enterprise. Thus Sergei Leiferkus, one of the most expressive Russian-speaking singers of the present generation, took on songs that were written for Chaliapin, including the grossly impressive Fate (CD 2 tr. 3), which is conceived around the fate motif of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. The outstanding tenor Leonid Sobinov’s repertoire was allotted to Alexandre Naoumenko and Joan Rodgers sang the songs that Rachmaninov composed with the great Antonina Nezhdanova in mind. This works fairly well but it has to be said that none of the present singers are quite in the class of the original singers.

The one who comes closest to his model is Sergei Leiferkus. I can’t honestly say that he is quite in the Chaliapin league but there have been few if any singers during the last twenty years or so that have been so expressive and idiomatic in this field. His voice is not very ingratiating, but neither was Chaliapin’s, and despite a sometimes throaty delivery and less than appealing vibrato his readings are engrossing. The tenor Alexandre Naoumenko is less successful. He is quite good when singing softly – and Rachmaninov often requires him to do so – but as soon as he has to sing something above mezza-forte he becomes awkward and his forte notes are plainly embarrassing. The ladies are more even. Maria Popescu sings with impressive dramatic conviction and is a pillar of strength whenever she appears. Joan Rodgers has made Russian repertoire a speciality of hers and she is interpretatively superb all through the programme but her tone is not always ingratiating and she has a fast flicker that is annoying in her legato singing. Vocalise, the most well known song of them all, composed for Nezhdanova, is well enough sung but the vibrato disrupts the legato line, so essential in this song. One feels a bit short-changed, expecting something more violin-like and steady.

These are however marginal observations. Readers interested in the complete Rachmanoniv songs can safely invest in this issue, knowing that a lot of the songs are expertly and idiomatically performed. However, there was a series of Rachmaninov songs issued by Decca some thirty years ago with Elisabeth Söderström – who had Russian as a second language through her mother. This had the unrivalled Vladimir Ashkenazy at the piano. That Decca box remains the touchstone but the present set, individually not the last word in Rachmaninov singing perhaps but absolutely complete, is no doubt an enticing bait, especially considering the super-budget price.

Göran Forsling

see also review by Jonathan Woolf BARGAIN OF THE MONTH May 2007





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