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Sergey PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Songs and Romances
Margarita Gritskova (mezzo-soprano)
Maria Prinz (piano)
rec. 2019, Studio 2, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich, Germany
Sung in Russian with German and English translations enclosed in booklet.
NAXOS 8.574030 [66:58]

Most of the Russian composers of the past have written art songs: Glinka, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and others, and they are not infrequently heard and also recorded. It may come as a surprise to many that Prokofiev also wrote songs – I have to admit that I was unfamiliar with that – but even though they span most of his creative life they are relatively few. After a spate during his youth in the 1910s he was largely inactive in the field during his exile and only resumed it at about the time of his return to the Soviet Union in 1936. Stylistically they also differ a lot, from the quite revolutionary expressionism of The Ugly Duckling and the Five Poems, Op. 23 via the lyrical impressionism of the Anna Akhmatova Songs Op 27 to his assimilation of Russian folk music in the late 1930s and early 1940s – where he no doubt followed the decree of the Soviet authorities. The present disc, presenting the songs largely in chronological order, gives us a welcome opportunity to follow his development, and even though the programme isn’t quite a wall-to-wall carpet, it is wide enough to let you walk safely through his oeuvre.

Starting with The Ugly Duckling from 1914 – it isn’t quite his earliest song; he composed Two Poems some years before that – we are in for a fascinating story, narrated in a temporarily harsh tonal language with a thrillingly expressive accompaniment, which probably made at least some people in the audience at the first performance reach for their safety belts. The text is by Nina Alexeyevna Krivosheina (1889 – 1981) but the story is also well-known from H. C. Andersen’s tale. Unfortunately we are not granted the full text in the booklet, just a summary due to copyright matters, so we can’t follow the details, but that’s certainly better than no text at all. And Margarita Gritskova’s wonderfully detailed reading with a myriad of vocal colours and nuances enthrals the listener from beginning to end – and we shouldn’t forget Maria Prinz’s well-judged accompaniment. This is a riveting opening to this traversal.

And what follows is no worse. The three songs – out of five – from Op. 23 (1915) are in the same vein, and filled with surprises. They could only have been written by Prokofiev. One could wonder why they are not better known, and hopefully they will be after Margarita Gritskova’s marvellously expressive readings. The five poems of Anna Akhmatova from the following year find the composer in a quite different mood, lyrical, more melodious, bordering on impressionism and easier to digest for listeners with less modernistic tastes. The premiere, where Prokofiev himself accompanied soprano Zinaida Artemyeva, was also a great success and even the critics were surprised. They hadn’t expected the enfant terrible to express ‘tenderness, warmth, emotion or, in short, lyrical charm in Prokofiev’s music’, as one of them wrote. This quotation is an accurate description of the impact the songs make, and it has to be regretted that he didn’t continue in these tracks. But two years later he emigrated and lost interest in the lyrical format, apart from 5 poems Op. 36 (1921), from which only one song, Remember me! – A Malayan spell, is included in the present collection. It seems like a return to his earlier expressionism.

The remainder of the programme, from the mid-30s and into the 40s, is as I said above, rooted in Russian folk music and aimed more at a popular market. This is not to say the songs are less valuable, but only his 3 Romances, Op. 73 to texts by Pushkin, of which The rosy dawn is colouring the east, is included here, can be classified as art songs. But the vocal excerps from large-scale works like Lieutenant KijÚ and Alexander Nevsky, as well as some folk songs, are highly attractive in their own right and confirm that Prokofiev was a musical chameleon and could appear in a variety of disguises – but in the end reveal his true identity, if only in an individual turn of phrase or a sudden twist in the piano part.

This album is a valuable demonstration of Prokofiev’s contribution in the field of vocal music. It is also further evidence of the versatility of Margarita Gritskova as a song interpreter. Her previous album with Russian songs (review) was awarded a Recommended tag and the present one deserves the reward very much so!

G÷ran Forsling

Previous review: Robert Cummings

1. The Ugly Duckling, Op. 18 (1914) [12:32]
5 Poems, Op. 23 (1915): [12:44]
2. No. 2: The Little Grey Dress [4:21]
3. No. 3: Trust me [2:49]
4. No. 5: The sorcerer [5:25]
5 Poems of Anna Akhmatova, Op. 27 (1916): [11:27]
5. No. 1: The sun has filled the room [1:09}
6. No. 2: Real tenderness [1:30]
7. No. 3: Memory of the Sun [2:48]
8. No. 4: Hello! [1:34]
9. No. 5: The Grey-Eyed King [4:04]
5 Poems, Op. 36:
10. No. 4: Remember Me! – A Malayan spell (1921) [4:30]
2 Songs from Lieutenant KijÚ, Op. 60bis
11. No. 1 My grey dove is full of sorrow (1934) [5:01]
2 Choruses, Op. 66a
12. No. 2: Anyutka (version for voice and piano) (1935) [2:29]
3 Children’s Songs, Op. 68
13. No. 1: The Chatterbox (1936) [5:04]
3 Songs from Alexander Nevsky, Op. 78bis
14. No. 2: Mark, ye Bright Falcons (The Field of the Dead) (1939) [5:01]
3 Romances, Op. 73
15. No. 2: The rosy dawn is colouring the east (1936) [3:52]
12 Russian Folksongs, Op. 104
16. No. 6: Katerina (1944) [3:33]

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