Wednesday 19 April 2023

The Poet's Echo: Jocelyn Freeman & friends weave a compelling programme out Pushkin settings by Prokofiev, Shostakovich & Britten

Prokofiev: Three Romances on words by Alexander Pushkin, Shostakovich: Cello Sonata, Four Romances on Poems by Alexander Pushkin; Britten: The Poet's Echo; Gemma Summerfield, Gareth Brynmor-John, Abi Hyde-Smith, Jocelyn Freeman; Rubicon

Prokofiev: Three Romances on words by Alexander Pushkin, Shostakovich: Cello SonataFour Romances on Poems by Alexander Pushkin; Britten: The Poet's Echo; Gemma Summerfield, Gareth Brynmor-John, Abi Hyde-Smith, Jocelyn Freeman; Rubicon
Reviewed 17 April 2023

A highly intelligent and compelling programme, pulling various threads together, Pushkin himself, the ideas of censorship or exile, and the blazing friendships, to shed an interesting light on the music

The Poet's Echo, pianist Jocelyn Freeman's new disc on Rubicon with soprano Gemma Summerfield, baritone Gareth Brynmor-John and cellist Abi Hyde-Smith might be described as a voyage round Pushkin. The idea for the disc began with Shostakovich's Four Romances on Poems by Alexander Pushkin and the realisation that the work had thematic and contextual links to Shostakovich's Cello Sonata in D minor written two years before. These are balanced by Prokofiev's Three Romances on words by Alexander Pushkin. The final work on the disc links both to Pushkin and to Shostakovich, with Britten's song cycle, The Poet's Echo, setting Pushkin poems and written for Galina Vishnevskaya and her husband Mstislav Rostropovich, with the cello connection underlined creating a cello part for the cycle. Another theme throughout the disc is that of exile, something that recurs often in Pushkin's poetry.

We being with Prokofiev's Three Romances on words by Alexander Pushkin, sung by Gemma Summerfield. These were written for the Pushkin centenary in 1937, the occasion when Shostakovich's songs were written too. Of Prokofiev's three songs, only the last uses the entire poem, Prokofiev cuts the other two. The first song, Pine Trees, explicitly references Pushkin's exile. The transparent piano part seems to live in the same world as Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet whilst Summerfield is poised, clear and thoughtful, as the poet remembers. The second song, The Rosy Dawn, sets a rather saucy text (which is the reason for Prokofiev's cuts), here a lilting, engaging piano supports Summerfield's soprano as she develops the character of the saucy dairy maid. Finally, Into your room, has a long piano introduction, before Summerfield comes in, lyrical, yet with an edge to it as two lovers have a final parting.

Shostakovich began writing his Cello Sonata in 1934, a period of emotional turmoil as he was having an affair with a student. It was dedicated to, and premiered by, the composer's friend, cellist Viktor Kubatsky. The flowing first movement starts with a gently focused cello, but intensity and drama are never far away as the music develops, and there are dark moments. The ending of the movement is disquietingly quiet, adding to the disturbing feel of the movement. This long movement is followed by a tiny but vibrant scherzo that is definitely dance. Both cellist, Abi Hyde-Smith and pianist, Jocelyn Freeman, bring energy and vividness to the music. The slow movement is bleak, a solo cello with dark piano contributions, does the piano support or threaten, the music never resolves enough for us to decide, the cello simply keens. Finally the perky, satirical Allegro.

Following this with the Four Romances does indeed make a satisfying pairing, and they are here sung by Gareth Brynmor-John. Rebirth is sober and spare, John's intelligent performance reflecting the complexity of the text yet he gives us moments of sheer beauty too.  A youth and a maiden is more characterful, a chattering voice over a flowing piano, but by turns the drama is urgent and thoughtful, the youth and the maiden's relationship being anything but easy. In Foreboding the voice is lyrical, but the sheer restlessness of the piano writing brings a level of anxiety. Stanzas begins strong and dark, with John's voice being firm and sober, often melancholic reflecting the rather uncomfortable text.

Shostakovich would become friends with Britten and Rostropovich, whilst Britten and Pears became friends with soprano Galina Vishnevskaya and her cellist/pianist husband Mstislav Rostropovich. Britten's Pushkin settings, The Poet's Echo were written in 1965 for Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich, following on from Britten's writing the soprano part in the War Requiem (1964) for Vishnevskaya. A proposed opera for her, Anna Karenina never came to fruition thanks to the Russian troops invading Czechoslovakia.

For these performances, Freeman and Hyde-Smith have arranged a solo cello line for the songs, effectively giving us a series of duets, as soprano Gemma Summerfield and cellist Abi Hyde-Smith create intertwining lines. Echo has a free, rhapsodic feel to it with Summerfield bringing passion to the music. She perhaps lacks the edge to the voice that Vishnevskaya had (though I only heard her live, much later in the 1980s) but Summerfield sings with inner strength and emphasis on the words. My Heart is intimate, transparent and spare, until the emotion overflows towards the end. Angel is remarkably perky, with the cello emphasising the Shostakovich-like nature of the music. All three performers bring a lovely mix of emotions to the music. The nightingale and the rose is suitably eerie and night-music-like, with Summerfield making the high-lying soprano line rather haunting. Epigram is dramatic; this is the song where Summerfield comes closest to Vishnevskaya in terms of tone quality, and here and in the last song, she and Hyde-Smith make a fabulous partnership. Finally, the haunting and eerie, Lines written during a sleepless night, brings the disc to a disturbing end.

Whilst one might want to go to archive recordings for classic performances of these pieces, the performers on this disc have crafted a highly intelligent and compelling programme. This is not easy music, but the various threads running through the disc, Pushkin himself, the ideas of censorship or exile, and the blazing friendships, all help to shed an interesting light on the music. And I loved the new version of The Poet's Echo and would love to hear it live.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) - Three Romances on words by Alexander Pushkin, Op.73 (1937)
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) - Cello Sonata in D minor, Op.40 (1934)
Dmitri Shostakovich - Four Romances on Poems by Alexander Pushkin, Op.46 (1937)
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), arr. Jocelyn Freeman & Abi Hyde-Smith - The Poet's Echo, Op.76 (1965)
Gemma Summerfield (soprano)
Gareth Brynmor-John (baritone)
Abi Hyde-Smith (cello)
Jocelyn Freeman (piano)
Recorded Wyastone Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, 12 & 13 November 2020
RUBICON RCD1115 1CD [65.33]

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