Notes and Editorial Reviews
Anna Netrebko (sop); Daniel Barenboim (pn)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 9967 (68:56
Text and Translation) Live: Salzburg 8/17/2009
What It Is, in the Still of Night. Forgive! Remember Not These Tearful Days. Not the Wind, Blowing from the Heights. The Lark Sings Louder. On
the Hills of Georgia. To the Kingdom of Roses and Wine. Suleika’s Song. Enslaved by the Rose, the Nightingale. The Clouds Begin to Scatter. The Nymph. Summer Night’s Dream.
Tell Me, What in the Shade of the Branches. To Forget So Soon. Frenzied Nights. Why? Serenade. Cradle Song. Was I Not a Little Blade of Grass? Amid Somber Days. Does the Day Reign?
Songs My Mother Taught Me.
This Salzburg Festival recital was clearly an Event, with a capital E. DG commemorates it by issuing the program complete here in what it calls a “prestige edition”: a solid cardboard book, rather than a jewel case, houses bound-in program notes in the form of two cogent essays and a somewhat ingenuous interview with Netrebko, all in English, German, and French, plus the texts in transliterated Russian with translations, and a number of photos of the two performers. The CD, taking its name from that of the opening song, is titled
In the Still of Night.
Young singers could learn a few things about constructing a recital program by studying the program that Netrebko and Barenboim offer here. The recital devotes a half-hour each to the songs of two contemporaries (and friends!) who, to paraphrase essayist Thomas P. Hodge, were more than is generally acknowledged two sides of the same coin, even frequently being drawn to the same poets. Each half of the program offers three groups of songs, linked by common subject matter, mood, and musical approach.
The four songs (or, to use the title favored by the Russian composers, romances) that make up the first group by Rimsky-Korsakov are the most directly linked to folk melody, after the models established a generation earlier by Glinka. The next five—interestingly, including three very early songs from 1866–70—are characterized by more operatic vocal lines and more elaborate piano parts; in particular,
Enslaved by the Rose, the Nightingale
, op. 2/2, features an ecstatic and stratospheric vocalise (ascending, I believe, to a high C?). The final pair, which together form op. 56, are the most musically ambitious of the Rimsky songs; not only are they the longest, but they also have the greatest range of expression, and correspondingly the broadest dynamic range and vocal tessitura. Netrebko sounds a bit uncomfortable in the first group, seeming in particular to have trouble with the rather low tessitura of
What It Is, in the Still of Night
The Lark Sings Louder
; these songs sometimes seem to be more suited to a mezzo-soprano voice than Netrebko’s soprano. Barenboim shapes the piano interludes with great sensitivity; of course, he is no mere “accompanist.” In the second group, whether because of tessitura or because of stylistic idiom, Netrebko seems entirely more at home; her singing is more free and comfortable, and you understand for the first time the caliber of singer you’re hearing. The voice is unmistakably Slavic, but free of the excessive vibrato that plagued earlier generations of Russian sopranos, and never “oversized” in the way some opera singers can sound in a Lieder recital. In the last two songs of this group, the adjectives I jotted down while listening were “dramatic” and “ravishing.” In the op. 56 pair, I added the word “spectacular.”
It was a bit surprising to read in the interview that Netrebko felt more comfortable with the Rimsky-Korsakov songs; she even says that the Tchaikovsky items were chosen by Barenboim. As the author of the other essay, Christian Wildhagen, writes, “[Tchaikovsky’s] romances strike an emphatically subjective note that has something balladic and even operatic about it.” Perhaps the key is this observation by Netrebko: “The Tchaikovsky I had never sung because they are very difficult. I wouldn’t have dared touch this repertoire before I really knew how to sing.” She clearly knows how to sing, then, because if she struggles a bit in Rimsky-Korsakov, she is masterly in Tchaikovsky. The differences between the two composers’ songs are clear early in the first group by Tchaikovsky; his songs are longer—there are nine here, with a total duration a couple minutes greater than that of the 11 Rimsky songs—and more dramatic and impassioned. Even the early songs
To Forget So Soon
are surprisingly moving despite their relatively straightforward means of expression; of course, Netrebko’s uncommonly sympathetic performances help. Tchaikovsky’s songs also frequently feature important piano postludes, which Barenboim turns into miniature tone poems. The five songs of the first group are for the most part meditations on love—lost, dreamed of, or unrequited—ending with the atypically light-hearted
. Barenboim is delightfully playful with this song’s offbeat accompaniment figures; in a wonderfully spontaneous moment that could only happen in a live performance, he “ad-libs” a finishing touch that elicits laughter, and
applause, from the audience.
The second and third Tchaikovsky groups contain only two songs each. The second begins with the gentle
, which serves as a foil for the longest and most dramatic song on the program,
Was I Not a Little Blade of Grass?
, the lament of a bride in an arranged marriage to an old man against her will. The two songs that form the last group, by contrast, are exultant love songs; Netrebko and Barenboim predictably bring the house down, despite the latter’s fistfuls of wrong notes in the epilogue.
Even the encores are beautifully chosen—the melancholy Dvo?ák, followed by Strauss’s passionate love song, in the audience’s native language.
To sum up: Once she gets her bearings, vocal or emotional, Netrebko goes from strength to strength; only a handful of singers have offered as compelling and vocally beautiful Tchaikovsky song performances—the young Galina Vishnevskaya comes to mind—and the Rimsky-Korsakov songs are practically unknown in the West. Barenboim, of course, is an exemplary partner. Even if you don’t think you like Russian romances, I bet you’ll love this recital. This is a rare treat.
FANFARE: Richard A. Kaplan
Works on This Recording
Songs (2), Op. 56 by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Anna Netrebko (Soprano),
Daniel Barenboim (Piano)
Written: 1898; Russia
Songs (6), Op. 6: no 5, Why? by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Anna Netrebko (Soprano),
Daniel Barenboim (Piano)
Written: 1869; Russia
Featured Sound Samples
In Spring (Rimsky-Korsakov): No 2: Not the wind, blowing from the heights
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