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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Biblical Songs op. 99 [26:33]
Gypsy Songs op.55 [13:54]
Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
In the midst of the noisy ball op.38/3 [2.02]
It was in the early spring op. 38/2 [2:41]
None but the lonely heart op. 6/6 [2:48]
Once again, as before, I am alone op. 73/6 [2:20]
Bless you, forests op. 47/5 [4:28]
Whether day dawns op. 47/6 [3:39]
Don Juan’s serenade op. 38/1 [2:43]
Yoram Chaiter (bass); Irena Zelikson (piano)
rec. November 2007, Classical Studio, Herzilya
Czech and Russian texts included with English translation
ROMEO RECORDS 7262 [62:22]
Experience Classicsonline

Though Dvořák has never been especially highly rated as a song composer, the Burghauser catalogue nevertheless lists around a hundred songs, ranging from the early “Cypresses” – love songs that he didn’t publish but quarried from all his life – to some miniatures from his very last years. That being so, it is strange that not even Supraphon has ever recorded them systematically – or, at any rate, I don’t recall any such project ever reaching the UK. Here we have another recording of the two most commonly heard cycles. If you don’t have any Dvořák songs these are certainly the ones to start from, and if you fancy them sung by a low male voice the obvious alternative is Supraphon SU 3247-2 231, where these two cycles are sung by the baritone Ivan Kusnjer who adds, maybe more logically, another short Dvořák set, the Three Modern Greek Poems op. 50.
In reality the alternative is a genuine one, since if you wanted to demonstrated to anyone the difference between a real bass voice and a real baritone one, you couldn’t do better than put these two side by side. Yoram Chaiter was born in the Ukraine when it was still under Soviet domination and has been living in Israel since 1973. Alongside a career as a singer he is active as a physician and his cancer research has been published in international journals. He has a strong, resonant and evenly produced voice – only occasionally bullish on top notes. His phrasing is natural and musical. Kusnjer has a tighter, more concentrated sound – a viola as opposed to a double bass. It is a more obviously “cultivated” sound and to these ears a more beautiful one for most of its range; his low notes are sometimes granular and his top notes are not always above reproach.
If you have a strong preference for one or other voice-type you can choose on that basis and be assured of some fine singing. In the last resort I find Kusnjer a little more penetrating as an interpreter, more detailed in his response to the music. He takes generally faster tempi in the Biblical Songs, avoiding the slight feeling of lugubriousness which sometimes besets Kusnjer. In the first of the Gypsy songs it is Kusnjer who is slower, but he and his pianist are more careful over the rhythms. The fourth of these songs, once almost indecently popular under the title “Songs my mother taught me”, is surprisingly tricky rhythmically and neither of them get it right – and they are not alone in this. In the third bar of the melody, singers seem to find it impossible not to move together with the piano, when the two-against-three rhythm requires that they should be not quite together, an effect that lends the song considerable fascination on the rare occasions that it is actually done properly. In the sixth song, too, Chaiter sings a couple of notes a third higher than written, unless the old Simrock edition I have has been supplanted by more recent scholarship. But in that case it would be surprising if Kusnjer didn’t know and he sings what I have in my score.
Apart from these details, I don’t think either singer fully gives Dvořák his head. The soaring lyricism which is what most people love above all in Dvořák, together with his pastoral poetry, does not entirely emerge, though Kusnjer at least hints at it. Maybe, you will be thinking, the Dvořák brew is not at its most potent in these works anyway. But no, I think more can be extracted from them than these versions manage.
If the Tchaikovsky coupling appeals to you, I hope little details like opus numbers don’t worry you. If so, make sure you copy them from the above header. This is not such a minor matter when there seems to be no general agreement as to the titles of these songs in English. What is called here “I bless you forests” was called “To the forest” in the old Boosey English-only edition and appears under the title “I greet you all, you woods and forests” in the more recent Boosey and Hawkes 2-volume selection edited by Roger Vignoles. And if you say these are just about recognizable as the same song, then the one called “Whether day dawns” here was called “Only for thee” in the old Boosey and many English listeners may still think of it as that. The only way I could find it in my score was to play the first few seconds of the CD and then stop it to thumb through the volume till I found the music I had just heard. With opus numbers it would have been so much simpler. The documentation might have named the poets, too, some of whom are important figures – for example Tolstoy.
Chaiter again sings well and musically but seems unwilling to push the music to the stage where it might actually become involving. It doesn’t help that the pianist launches the most famous of all – “None but the lonely heart” – at an unusually fast tempo and sounds to be rather cross at having to play such hackneyed old stuff at all. She also ploughs through the postlude of “To the Forests” without any apparent awareness that some considerable dynamic contrasts were marked by the composer and may be to blame if “Whether day dawns” doesn’t get up much of a head of steam. Rather curiously, a bar for piano only has been omitted from the middle of “None but the lonely heart” – unless both my editions are wrong in including it. This maybe be a faulty edit rather than a decision – or accident – on the part of the performers.
Since I’m getting grouchy, I’ll add at this point that, though you do get original texts and translations into English, these are not side by side but one following the other, song-group by song-group. So if you want to follow the original with an eye on the translation, you can’t. Also, the Russian texts are in European transliteration, not Cyrillic. It makes no difference to me since I don’t know Russian; those who do tell me it’s not very helpful. The brief presentation states that the Gypsy Songs were “set to the original texts of Adolf Heyduk in Czech”. No; they were written for a Viennese tenor and the composer set German translations of the texts by Heyduk himself, while making allowance in the music for performance using the Czech originals, which are what he obviously preferred. But the “original” of this cycle is the German version; the first Simrock edition had both languages plus English.
Despite a splendid voice, then, which some might enjoy collecting for its own sake, I’m afraid I can’t get up more than moderate enthusiasm for this.
Christopher Howell


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