In the Still of Night: Songs of Rimsky-Korsakov & Tchaikovsky – Anna Netrebko & Daniel Barenboim

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Songs by Rimsky-Korsakov & Tchaikovsky
Dvořák
Songs my mother taught me, Op.55/4
Strauss
Cäcilie, Op.27/2

Anna Netrebko (soprano) & Daniel Barenboim (piano)

Recorded 17 August 2009 at Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg


Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: December 2010
CD No: DG 477 8589
Duration: 69 minutes

Anna Netrebko seems to part exceptional vocal personality and part marketing phenomenon. The voice is a thing of dark shades, insinuating sadness. The basic mezzo colour, the fullness of tone in the chest register and an upper extension make a formidable combination. She has been promoted as an operatic diva, her stunning good looks projected in publicity material and a romance with a fellow artist an added ingredient of the image.

I am sceptical about the course of her career so far. On the opera stage she has undertaken several roles from the Italian bel canto school. She may have the glamour to take on such heroines as Amina, Lucia and Elvira (“I Puritani”) but she certainly lacks a reliable technique in the fioriture. Do her advisers reason that this is what divas sing so she must follow suit? Perhaps they excuse her lack of the wherewithal for such music through the example of Maria Callas, an imperfect vocalist, who nevertheless sang these roles. But that great diva’s faults were in other areas: her passagework glittered to perfection right up to the end of her career.

This was reportedly Anna Netrebko’s first-ever public song recital with piano. Starting at the top in this musical genre at an ultra-prestigious venue and partnered by a musician with a household name suggests hubris. In the event one would not have suspected that she was a rooky in this area. There is plenty of evidence here that her natural home is more Russian romance than Italian opera. Her intrinsic vocal timbre fits the mood of many of these songs, while the Tchaikovsky group in particular (all written for high voice) profits from a positive tension in the high register. The programme explores an interesting contrast between Rimsky’s synthesis of folksong and distant exoticism (conspicuous in “Zuleika’s song”) and the metropolitan sophisticate Tchaikovsky.

Netrebko catches the rugged nature of Rimsky’s writing for the voice. She appreciates the emotional release of “The lark’s song rings more clearly”, whose pantheistic euphoria provides an energetic end to the first group, even if she allows her tone to roughen. In the familiar “Captivated by the rose, the nightingale” the concluding high vocalise is soundly sung and replete with soul. Elsewhere in the Rimsky songs there are moments when a hint of stridency infects her line above the stave.

The excitement of some of the fast-moving songs co-exists with more subtle pleasures. In “What it is, in the still of night” the sweetness of its folksong style is unerringly observed. Netrebko offers an immaculate diminuendo and some controlled piano phrases, without becoming self-conscious. In “It was not the wind, blowing from the heights” the ternary structure of the poem and its setting are conveyed with both imagination and musicianship. There is an antithesis between the outer verses, with their references to the tranquilising effect of the beloved, and the central section which recounts the sufferings of her soul. In those opening and closing sections Netrebko conveys the peacefulness which he brings by supporting the words on immaculately poised tone.“On Georgia’s hills” is another song to receive an absorbing performance, from the bare octaves of the pianist’s opening to the hushed echo of the final phrase. Daniel Barenboim’s touch is exceptional here, the insistent tonic pedal almost inaudible but powerfully nagging and the swaying movement of the second part vividly caught. Netrebko’s intensity is not at the expense of nobility of tone.

On a more straightforward level is the serene lyricism of “The Nymph”, a Russian “Lorelei” without the grisly threat. This is a perfect example of Barenboim’s treatment of the imitative and answering phrases in which these songs abound. There are some testing accompaniments, notably the decorative harp-like phrases of “To the realm of rose and wine”, a strikingly original piece whose vocal line resembles improvisatory recitative and incorporates a dialogue between singer and pianist. Less satisfying is Barenboim’s treatment of his part in probably the best known of these Rimsky songs. “The line of flying clouds grows thin”; it receives some aggressive treatment which the singer is tempted to emulate.

The Tchaikovsky group comprises a fairly conventional selection, launched by the paean to love of “Say, when under shady boughs” and concluding with the tumultuous tribute to the beloved in “Amidst the day”. In the opening song the boiling urgency which characterises the outer verses is not the whole story. Netrebko excels in the second verse, with its subtle switch to a subjective experience of love. The young girl’s secret trembling is uttered with a stifled thrill, the word “Love” hesitantly acknowledged. The pianist’s excursion into the bass which follows reinforces that the essence of the character is being revealed.

“So soon forgotten” is impressively done: Barenboim controls the ebb and flow of his tone with more discretion than he shows elsewhere. Netrebko rises to the initial bewilderment and subsequent indignation of the poet towards the premature extinction of what had seemed a well-founded relationship. Then she responds movingly to the contrasted section in D flat, adding warmth to her tone and lingering over the phrases in wistful re-creation of one particular romantic night.

She conveys utter desolation in “Reckless nights” and the pessimism of “Why?” is maintained through the long climbing phrases, the relentlessly upward dynamic and the eventual acceleration, over-riding the poetic divisions before sinking down to leave only Barenboim’s faultlessly characterised postlude. The latter introduces charming rubato into the bouncy allegretto of “Serenade”, drawing audible amusement from the audience for his waggish ending. He stays within the song’s implied limits of intimacy, while Netrebko opens out a mite too much on occasion. There is no such problem in “Lullaby”, with its mesmeric drone bass and chromatic lines in the accompaniment: a most original cradle-song indeed.“Was I not a blade of grass in the field?” comes from the period of the operas “Eugene Onegin” and “The Maid of Orleans” and its mixture of narrative and lament from a peasant girl forced into an arranged marriage is very much akin to an operatic aria. Netrebko adopts a darker tone for the refrain each time, ending with a painful melisma; the agonised extension of the latter in the final verse strikes to the heart. In the postlude of the concluding song Barenboim cannot resist his tendency to batter his instrument.

One is accustomed nowadays to hearing encores which relate to the advertised programme. With Netrebko it was otherwise and not to the evening’s advantage. The hackneyed Dvořák piece (“auf Czech”, as Netrebko announces it) is followed by a bull-at-a-gate rendering of Richard Strauss’s display piece. Surely another couple of Tchaikovsky songs would have been better.

Deutsche Grammophon is to be complimented for recording and publishing this recital: it brings us closer to the singer’s true personality, warts and all … and there are some of the latter: her breathing is frequently audible, breaths are sometimes snatched and occasionally long phrases broken up. Nevertheless her enunciation of the Russian texts throughout is crystal-clear and she identifies subtle variations within songs but without self-conscious artifice.

This has been a review of the economy edition (texts and translations can be downloaded from the website). The recital is also available in a de-luxe “hardback” version with an enhanced sixty-page booklet. I sincerely hope this will be the last occurrences of such outrageous class distinction.

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