Russian Melodies
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Morning, Op.4 No.2 [2:03]
Oh Do Not Grieve, Op.14 No.8 [2:54]
I Wait For Thee, Op.14 No.1 [1:52]
In the Silence of the Secret Night, Op.4 No.3 [2:44]
Beautiful as the Day, Op.14 No.9 [2:25]
Christ Has Risen, Op.26 No.6 [2:42]
The Waters of Spring, Op.14 No.11 [2:10]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
The Nursery (Oh Tell Me Nanny; In the Corner; The Beetle; Lullaby of the Doll; The Evening Prayer; On the Hobby-Horse; The Cat Named Sailor) [16:24]
Peter TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Wasn’t I A Blade of Grass? Op.47 No.7 [5:37]
Zemphira’s Song [1:57]
If I Only Had Known, Op.47 No.1 [4:31]
Does The Day Reign, Op.47 No.6 [3:14]
Songs and Dances of Death (Lullaby; Serenade; Trepak; The Field-Marshal) [19:46]
Ewa Podles (mezzo), Graham Johnson (piano)
rec. 1993, Théâtre de Poissy, France. DDD
No texts or translations.
FORLANE FOR16683 [69:43]

The famous Polish singer shows great affinity with the Russian song repertoire. On this disc she is partnered by the infallible Graham Johnson. The result is admirable.

Rachmaninov’s songs are lush, and you can be sure each one will sport a highly Romantic climax. The composer had the gift of combining simple motivic cells into memorable, opulent melodies. These are grand romances, where nothing is lean, and Podles’ singing here has a calorie count, just like the songs. Her voice is dark and round, and radiates power. Still, even in the climaxes her singing is, above all, beautiful. Many Rachmaninov songs, such as The Waters of Spring, become impressive and difficult piano pieces if we remove the vocal part.

Mussorgsky’s Nursery is a unique cycle. It’s hard to believe that it was written in 1872 and not some sixty years later. These songs, as often with Mussorgsky, are pure theatre: there are roles for the nanny and the children. The composer, who also provided the texts, mimics the child’s manner of talk and intonations – and he was a great master of bringing the real-life intonation into music. Podles changes her manner completely to meet the need. She is candidly childish. Also, even if you don’t understand the words, you’ll know when the hero is a little boy, and when it’s a girl: the former is more prankish, the latter more gentle. Podles as the Nanny is completely different, her voice sounds mature and bossy – and yet we feel that she loves her charges and only pretends to be angry. These are pictures of a child’s fears and joys, little mischief, curiosity and delights. The piano part is done very neatly; nothing is excessive, yet it adds bright strokes and accents to the pictures.

Out of Tchaikovsky’s many songs, four were selected. Two of them, Wasn’t I A Blade of Grass? and If I Only Had Known are folk-like and dramatic, resembling Lisa’s aria from Pique Dame. Does the Day Reign is rapturous, close to Vaudémont’s song from Iolanta. Zemphira’s Song is untamed and defiant. Generally, Tchaikovsky’s songs are not the sumptuous statements of a Rachmaninov. They are expressive, but without grandiloquence, more simple and sincere. Also, the music does not do all the work for the singer, who needs to put a lot of soul into the singing, or else all will look square. The presentation by Podles is very operatic, not really intimate, but for the chosen songs it works well. The sad numbers are really tragic, Zemphira’s Song is wild and taunting, and Does the Day Reign is ecstatic, though her voice becomes a bit too hard here.

This hardness, though, is welcome in Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. In Lullaby, Death (female in Russian) is pictured by Podles as sweet and smiling like a caring grandma. It truly has a human face, and there is none of the mystical iciness which I feel when listening to the recording by Marianne Beate Kielland on 2L. The ending is unexpectedly comic - very strange, as if Death were some malign witch from a children’s show. This song is followed by a truly excellent rendition of the Serenade: sensual, assured and with a powerful ending. In Trepak, Podles again depicts Death as kind, feminine, even playful. Death lures and ensnares, until it shows its real nature, summoning the blizzard to bury the lost man. And then Death, soft and tender again, sings sweet tales to him. The Field-Marshal depicts the horrors of a battle and the final victorious song of the Death, its apotheosis. Podles has the necessary power to bring out the composer’s intentions. She applies excellent word coloring. This terrifying dirge-march provides both the culmination and the finale for this album. And this was the right decision: I can’t imagine something that could be sung after such a passionate and thought-provoking interpretation. Of the interpretations I have heard, the most hair-raising one was done by Kielland/Osadchuk, but Podles undeniably exhibits greater mastery of voice.

Ewa Podles is famous for her exceptional voice range. She goes down to the lows and up to the highs, while keeping the sound beautiful. Though sometimes her voice can become hard and heavy, such occasions are rare. Her Russian pronunciation is exemplary, and native speakers should have no reservations. She impresses with her perfect diction and deepest understanding of the nuances of meaning, which she expresses vocally.

The accompaniment by Graham Johnson is typically fine – though this can be taken for granted, right? I want to point out the feeling of freedom that his playing radiates: freedom and power. He is not hiding behind the singer, but is a true partner. The recording quality is very good and clear, capturing the black pearls of Podles’ voice admirably. The booklet contains small essays in French and English about the works, as well as the performers’ biographies, but regrettably no texts or translations. This is an admirable recital, expressive and exciting. But be prepared when you approach The Nursery: it is so different from your regular Romantic song-cycles! I just want it to be a discovery for you, not a shock.

Oleg Ledeniov

This is an excellent recital: expressive and exciting.