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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Songs and Romances
Margarita Gritskova (mezzo-soprano)
Maria Prinz (piano)
rec. 2019, Studio 2, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich, Germany
NAXOS 8.574030 [66:58]

This collection of Prokofiev songs is presented nearly in chronological order: only the 1939 Mark, Ye Bright Falcons, Op. 78bis, is slightly out of place, coming ahead of the 1936 The Rosy Dawn Is Coloring the East, Op. 73, No. 2. Thus the listener can hear Prokofiev's vocal style evolve in a fairly clear way, moving from the jagged melodic lines and the sometimes start-and-stop manner of the early songs to the warmer character and more linear flow of the later ones. There is much biting humor, sarcasm and daring in early Prokofiev too, while in his middle period he was moving toward a more lyrical manner of expression, which would flower to full bloom in the final third of his creative years, though he never dispensed with his sense of humor. Yet, the songs in all phases of his career are of high quality with much to offer the listener.

The singer here, St. Petersburg-born mezzo-soprano Margarita Gritskova, has won several prestigious competitions and sung at many of the major opera houses and concert venues across the globe. She has been an ensemble member of the Vienna State Opera since 2012 and has already established herself as one of the more important mezzo-sopranos of her generation. Her accompanist, Bulgarian-born Maria Prinz, has appeared on tour with her in recitals in various European cities and served as accompanist on Ms. Gritskova' first recording for Naxos, Russian Songs, which featured works by Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninov. Ms. Prinz has had a successful career herself as a solo pianist, appearing at major concert venues such as Carnegie Hall, the Musikverein in Vienna, the Salzburg Festival and many others. She has made a number of previous recordings as both soloist and accompanist. This is her fourth Naxos album.

These two artists show a real affinity for the music presented here: Gritskova sings with utter commitment, conveying with spirit and personality both the music's emotions and happenings in the song's text, while pianist Prinz points up so much meaningful detail and in proper balance with her partner's singing line that you notice her presence nearly as much as Gritskova's.

They begin with The Ugly Duckling, which stylistically is not really a children's song, despite its fairy tale narrative about an outcast duckling who, having endured the teasing of fellow ducks and farm animals because of his supposed ugly looks, becomes a beautiful swan and triumphs at the end. Its music is full of wit and invention and here the two performers capture its character virtually to perfection―its curt manner of expression, child-like innocence and playfulness, bursts of exasperation and disappointment, and its sorrows and joys. Gritskova, who possesses a creamy, very pleasing mezzo voice with plenty of power, divulges much subtle nuancing in her phrasing, particularly in her accenting and dynamics, always seeming to find the heart of the music and text in an utterly convincing way. Prinz, for her part, gives real life to Prokofiev's witty writing, ever alert to its abrupt mood swings, her tone never brittle in the music's sudden stops, and her dynamics well judged to maintain proper balances.

In the ensuing three selections from the Op. 23 5 Poems, they point up the stylistic similarities to The Ugly Duckling, but don't overlook the more serious nature of the music and text. Try Gritskova's clever account of The Sorcerer and notice how she expresses the mysterious and dark character of the song with various subtle effects: emphatic delivery here, dreamy manner there, a sort of wavering effect at one point as her voice swoops up and down with dynamics that swell and recede alternately, and with many other vocal acrobatics. Prinz accompanies her with the same kind of alertness to Prokofiev's often changing moods.

All five songs are included in the 5 Akhmatova Poems, Op. 27, and Gritskova and Prinz underscore the more lyrical character of the music here, as melodic lines are less angular, though there is also a general sense of foreboding in the set. Their account of No. 5, The Grey-Eyed King, is brilliant in their enactment of the song's dark lyricism. Gritskova's mezzo voice, by the way, hits the same high notes here a good soprano does―and she appears to manage them without strain.

Gritskova delivers a dramatic and intense rendition of Remember Me, No. 4 from 5 Poems, Op. 36. There follows a very melancholy and effective account of the quite famous My grey dove is full of sorrow, No. 1 from Two Songs from Lieutenant Kije, Op. 60bis. The ensuing Anutka, No. 2 from 2 Choruses, Op. 66a, has swagger and much charm in her somewhat slower than usual tempo. The speed at which Gritskova sings the fast sections in The Chatterbox, No. 1 from 3 Children's Songs, Op. 68, is remarkable because managing clear diction and hitting all the notes, both of which she does, is immensely difficult. Needless to say, her version, thanks in part to Prinz's deft accompaniment, is utterly captivating too. Gritskova's Alexander Nevsky Field Of The Dead selection (Mark, ye bright falcons) is also most effective, and she closes the disc with the absolutely brilliant Katerina, one of Prokofiev's most irresistible songs. I previously had favored a much livelier tempo here, but Gritskova's rendition has so much charm and wit, I can say this is the best I've heard from a half dozen or so others.

The sound reproduction provided by Naxos is vivid and perfectly balanced between the artists. As for comparisons in this still mostly rarely explored repertory, Carole Farley is quite a fine interpreter as well, if I can judge from her two Prokofiev song collections―on ASV from 1989 (with pianist Roger Vignoles) and Chandos from 1986 (Arkady Aronov on piano). But in selecting two songs for comparison, I noticed her somewhat faster tempo in The Sorcerer undercuts the impact of some of the vocal effects I spoke of above. In The Ugly Duckling her dramatic skills are quite fine but Gritskova exhibits that extra bit of subtlety and color, and she's aided by Prinz's adroit accompaniment. On a 3-CD collection of Prokofiev's complete songs on Delos from 2000 (actually a few songs aren't included as it turns out), various Russian singers (some well known) and Pianist Yuri Serov, turn in generally quite fine accounts, but Gritskova and Prinz have the edge overall. There are individual performances of various songs by Galina Vishnevskaya, Elizabeth Söderström, Lucia Popp and others but only possibly Vishnevskaya impresses me in Prokofiev's songs as much as Gritskova. So the verdict here is simple: this Naxos disc is highly recommended for the outstanding performances of both the singer and pianist.

Robert Cummings

The Ugly Duckling, Op. 18 (1914) [12:32]
Text: Nina Alexeyevna Krivosheina (1889-1981)
5 Poems, Op. 23 (1915) [12:44]
No. 2, The Little Grey Dress [4:21]
Text: Zinaida Nikolayevna Gippius (1869-1945)
No. 3, Trust Me [2:49]
Text: Boris Verin (1891-1935)
No. 5, The Sorcerer [5:25]
Text: Nikolai Yakovlevich Agnivtsev (1888-1932)
5 Poems of Anna Akhmatova, Op. 27 (1916) [11:27]
No. 1, The Sun Has Filled My Room [1:09]
No. 2, Real Tenderness [1:30]
No. 3, Memory of the Sun [2:48]
No. 4, Hello! [1:34]
No. 5, The Grey-Eyed King [4:04]
Text: Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966)
5 Poems, Op. 36 [4:30]
No. 4, Remember Me! - A Malayan spell
Text: Konstantin Dmitrievich Balmont (1867-1942)
2 Songs from Lieutenant Kijé, Op. 60bis [5:01]
No. 1, My Grey Dove Is Full of Sorrow
Text: Yury Tynyanov (1894-1943)
2 Choruses, Op. 66A [2:29]
No. 2, Anyutka (Version for Voice & Piano)
Text: Russian Folksong
3 Children's Songs, Op. 68 [5:04]
No. 1, The Chatterbox
Text: Agniya Barto (1906-1981)
3 Songs from Alexander Nevsky, Op. 78bis [5:01]
No. 2, Mark, Ye Bright Falcons
Text: Vladimir Lugovskoy (1901-1957) & Sergei Prokofiev
3 Romances, Op. 73 [3:52]
No. 2, The Rosy Dawn Is Coloring the East
Text: Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)
12 Russian Folksongs, Op. 104 [3:33]
No. 6, Katerina
Text: Russian Folksong

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