Saturday 2 May 2020

Arion: Voyage of a Slavic soul - Natalya Romaniw & Lada Valesova in Rimsky-Korskov, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Dvorak, Janacek, & Novak

Arion: Voyage of a Slavic Soul; Rimsky-Korskov, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Dvorak, Janacek, Novak; Natalya Romaniw, Lada Valesova; Orchid Classics
Rimsky-Korskov, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Dvorak, Janacek, Novak; Natalya Romaniw, Lada Valesova; Orchid Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 2 May 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Touching melodies, and intense passion in this emotional journey through Slavic song dedicated to the Welsh soprano's Ukrainian grandfather

For all that soprano Natalya Romaniw has been exploring Puccini's heroines recently [including Mimi and Butterfly at English National Opera, and Tosca at Scottish Opera], it is perhaps with Russian and Czech roles that she most identifies notably Tchaikovsky's Tatyana (Eugene Onegin), and Lisa (Queen of Spades) and the title roles in Janacek's Jenufa [see my review of her 2017 performance at Grange Park Opera, and my interview with Romaniw] and Dvorak's Rusalka, not to mention her striking Marenka in Smetana's The Bartered Bride at Garsington Opera [currently available on YouTube]. 

Perhaps this sympathy with Slavic roles is not surprising, Romaniw's grandfather was Ukrainian and emigrated to South Wales during the Second World War. And though brought up in Swansea, Romaniw's biggest musical influence as a girl was Ukrainian folk-song.

For Natalya Romaniw's new recital disc on Orchid Classics she is joined by
with pianist Lada Valesova (who should have been conducting Opera Holland Park's 2020 Young Artist performance of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin). Their recital Arion: Voyage of a Slavic Soul is dedicated to the memory of Romaniw's Ukrainian grandfather and explores her sympathy with Slavic composers, with songs from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Antonin Dvorak, Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninov, Leos Janacek and Vitezslav Novak.
We begin with a trio of Rimsky-Korsakov songs; Russian folk culture was never too far away in Rimsky-Korsakov's art, though the influence of Wagner can be felt too. As soprano Anush Hovhannisyan showed on her disc of Rimsky-Korsakov songs on Stone Records [see my review], the composer's songs are undeservedly neglected territory. He often used his songs and romances as proving ground for ideas, and Softly the soul flew up to heaven, Op.27 No.1 (1882-83) has links to his opera The Snow Maiden. It is a lyrical piece, setting a poem by Tolstoy and features a rapturous soprano part over a gently throbbing piano.

His two songs Opus 56 (1898) both set poetry by Mayakov. The first, about a nymph seducing a sailor with her singing, uses a suitably seductive melody over delicately rippling piano, whilst the second Summer Night's Dream has a lovely element of lyrical rapture to it. In all three Rimsky-Korsakov songs, Romaniw brings out the words, and also is not frightened of letting her voice blossom so that we have some intensely rapturous moments.

Antonin Dvorak wrote his early song cycle, Cypresses in 1865 for Josefina Cermakova, to whom he gave piano lessons. Falling in love with her, his feelings were unreciprocated, and he ultimately married Josefina's sister Anna. Dvorak never published Cypresses but seems to have remained attached to the work. Whilst Cypresses sets 18 poems by Gustav Pfleger-Moravsky, Dvorak selected six songs in 1881 to revise as his Songs Opus 2, and then selected eight songs for revision to create his Love Songs Opus 83 in 1888. He would also arrange 12 songs for string quartet (also named Cypresses). Here Romaniw and Valesova perform the Love Songs Opus 83.

Dvorak very much follows Pfleger-Moravsky's Czech texts, so that the vocal lines often have something of a declamatory feel as Dvorak brings out the Czech prosody, yet Dvorak's lyrical gift is never far away. The songs are all relatively short (all under 2:30), yet each creates a very definite emotional moment. In some, such as 'Around the house now I stagger', the lyrical-folk element is closer, whilst in others Dvorak's romanticism is to the fore. Romaniw and Valesova are powerful advocates for these songs, creating distinctive atmosphere for each song without ever trying too hard. The result is a series of characteristic moments, lyrical and often rather touching.

Apart from a favoured few songs, Tchaikovsky is another composer whose songs are rather undeservedly neglected, yet he wrote songs throughout his career, setting both Russian and French texts, right up to the Romances Opus 73, published the year of his death. Romaniw and Valesova perform three of his songs dating firmly from the middle of Tchaikovsky's composing career.

'Gentle stars were shining upon us' comes from his Romances Opus 60, written in 1886 for the Empress Maria Feodorovna (Queen Alexandra of the United Kingdom's sister Dagmar). Delicate at first, it has some richly romantic and passionate moments, enabling Romaniw to move from touching enunciation to real passion. 'Can it be day' comes from his Seven Songs, Opus 47 from 1880, the texts from which seem, perhaps, to reflect the painful encounter which was Tchaikovsky's failed marriage, though of course we need to be wary about this. Tchaikovsky's emotional life was so complex, and much of it not for public consumption, that the emotional nature of his music makes us want it to be autobiographical. This is one of his better known songs, with a wonderfully romantic melody which enables Romaniw and Valesova to make it a real thing of romantic passion. 'Why' is from a far earlier set, the Six Romances, Opus 6 setting a Russian translation of Heine. Here we have a melody which could not be by anyone by Tchaikovsky and Romaniw makes the most of it, starting in a controlled manner and giving us a slow build.

Rachmaninov's composing career was very much linked to his home country, after he left in 1918 he wrote very little and certainly no songs. Song was clearly important to him, settings wend their way from 1890 through to 1916.

Romaniw and Valesova start with one of his best known, 'Oh never sing to me again', Opus 4 No.4 with its haunting evocation of Georgian folk melody written in 1890-93 before the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony in 1897. For all the seductive lyricism, it is the intense, passionate yearning which Romaniw brings out. 'The Harvest of Sorrow' is the next song in the same set (Opus 4 No. 5), and sets a text by Tolstoy in a song which has a distinctly lamenting Russian folk-song atmosphere. Though the song is not that familiar, it evokes and atmosphere which is redolent of much Russian music, and Romaniw proves a passionate advocate.

'How fair this spot', comes from Twelve Songs, Opus 21 No.7 written in 1902 is another of Rachmaninov's better known songs, written shortly after his Piano Concerto No. 2 and similarly unashamedly romantic, and here Romaniw and Valesova seem to keep themselves in check, bringing out the focused intensity rather than revelling in the romantically melodic luxury. 'Spring Waters' from Twelve Songs, Opus 21 takes us back to 1896 and here it receives an impulsively passionate performance. Finally, the recital's title track 'Arion' from Fourteen Songs Opus 34; written in 1912 it is darkly dramatic with operatic hints.

The songs by Janacek on the disc all come from before his late flowering (his first major operatic success, Jenufa premiered in 1904 when he was 50). Folk music was important to Janacek, and he spent much of his life collecting and documenting it. His Moravian folk poetry in songs JW V/2 is a collection of 53 folksong arrangements from Moravia, the region where Janacek was born and where he lived most of his life.

Here we hear four of the songs, the plangent 'Love', lively dance-song 'Constancy', the poignant 'Rosemary',  and the characterful 'Musicians'. We can clearly hear the Moravian and Czech atmosphere in each song. Though I would not necessarily guess that these were by Janacek, the accompaniments clearly avoid the pitfalls of pressing the folk-music into the Austro-German compositional mould. Romaniw and Valesova really bring out the engaging melodic beauty of this material.

Finally, we have the song cycle The Fairytale of the Heart, Opus 8 by the Czech composer Viteslav Novak. Novak studied at Prague Conservatory, including taking masterclasses with Dvorak. The Fairytale of the Heart dates from 1896 when he was just 26. So the influences in the music range from Moravian folk music to the prevailing influence of Wagner and Brahms. Novak would become an early example of Czech modernism, but here his idiom is more conventionally Romantic. The five songs takes from the happiness of love through a sense of loss and finally the poet in his grave bidding his beloved 'Come to my grave, but do not weep'. The music has a touching romanticism to it, but also other elements influenced by Novak's interest in Moravian folk music. It is a lovely cycle, and like other music on the disc I am puzzled as to why it is not better known.

This is a lovely recital, with Romaniw and Valesova both complementing each other in performances which are by turns delicate, touching, vibrant and intense. Romaniw never lets rip just for the sake of it, nor does she simply revel in some of the melodic lushness of these songs, instead we get a series of often intense emotional narratives. And journey through Russian and Czech song which certainly brings out their Slavic souls.

Arion: Voyage of Slavic soul
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)
1 Gornimi tikho letela dusha nebesami, Op.27 No.1 (Softly the soul flew up to heaven)
2 Nimfa, Op.56 No.1 (The nymph)
3 Son v letnuyu noch, Op.56 No.2 (Summer Night’s Dream)

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) - Love Songs, Op.83

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
12 Nam zviozdi krotkie siali, Op.60 No.12 (Gentle stars were shining upon us)
13 Den li tsarit, Op.47 No.6 (Can it be day?)
14 Otchevo, Op.6 No.5 (Why?)

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
15 Oh never sing to me again, Op.4 No.4
16 The Harvest of Sorrow, Op.4 No.5
17 How fair this spot, Op.21 No.7
18 Spring Waters, Op.14 No.11
19 Arion, Op.34 No.5

Leoš Janáček (1854-1928
20 Łáska (Love)
21 Stálost (Constancy)
22 Rozmarýn (Rosemary)
23 Muzikanti (Musicians)

Vítězslav Novák (1870-1949) - The Fairytale of the Heart, Op.8

Natalya Romaniw (soprano)
Lada Valesova (piano)
Recorded at Potton Hall, 12-14 August & 19-20 November 2019

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