At the ball, Op.38/3
None but the lonely heart, Op.6/6
Over burning ashes, Op.25/2
My genius, my angel, my friend!
The sun has set, Op.73/4
The fearful moment, Op.28/6
Mild stars looked down, Op.60/12
Had I only known, Op.47/1
The lights were being dimmed, Op.63/5
Not a word, my friend, Op.6/2
The bride’s lament, Op.47/7
The gypsy song, Op.60/7
Do not believe, my friend, Op.6/1
It was in early spring, Op.38/2
Can it be day?, Op.47/6
Again, as before, alone, Op.73/6
[All selections sung in Russian]
Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano) & Julius Drake (piano)
Recorded 5-7 July 2008 at Champs Hill, Pulborough, England
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: January 2009
CD No: ONYX 4034
Duration: 63 minutes
Here is another issue to confirm the multitude of lyric mezzos around today – and another with youth on her side. Christianne Stotijn offers the promise of many years to come at the highest level of performance. The voice is warm, firm and rounded in the lower register. Above C, when pressed, the vibrato loosens a little, which is less agreeable as sound but an authentic conveyor of dramatic expression.There has been some debate about the quality of Tchaikovsky’s songs. The Russian Romance does not occupy as prestigious a position in musical esteem as Lieder or mélodies. Among Russian song-composers it is Mussorgsky who holds the highest rank, a Debussy to Tchaikovsky’s Gounod, as it were. Of this selection, however, I find only one setting that is redolent of the salon (“Early spring”). It is true that many are restricted to a single mood; though the way Stotijn and her ubiquitous and infinitely adaptable accompanist Julius Drake explore beneath the surface prevents monotony.
I was initially disconcerted by an acoustic that brings both participants close and gives the voice a halo of resonance, quite unlike a concert hall ambience. However, one soon gets accustomed to this.
As with a number of other composers (Mendelssohn, Rachmaninov, even Richard Strauss), only a handful of Tchaikovsky’s more than 100 songs appear on recital programmes. The attraction of this issue lies also in the exposure of some rarely performed compositions. Most of the best-known songs are here. Of those missing, “I bless you forests” and “Don Juan’s Serenade” are expressly male songs but there would have been room for “Pimpinella”.
The recital begins with two familiar songs and ends with two more. Otherwise the order of the songs displays no clear, coherent structure. Neither chronology nor theme appears to determine the sequence. There is some alternation of major with minor keys in successive songs and a degree of contrasting moods. Fortunately the interpretations always maintain interest.
Stotijn’s is not on the whole a theatrical approach. In the familiar “None but the lonely heart”, itself greatly diluted in translation from Goethe’s original, we hear what sounds like the experience of a decent, everyday victim, detailing her suffering in long concentrated phrases, only briefly approaching a loss of emotional control (which she shamefacedly regrets before re-asserting her composure). “Not a word, my friend”, is another song of suffering in which a current state of depression is conveyed in grey, bleak tone in both the opening and closing phrases, framing a discharge of emotion in the central stanza, as the poet bemoans the contrast between present depression and past happiness.
“Over burning ashes”, another negative song, receives an imaginative setting. The agitated opening section describes how a smouldering parchment can flare up, destroying both itself and the words it contains. A contrasted reflective middle section describes the poet’s own state of unproductive Weltschmerz. He suddenly sees the possibility of turning this metaphor into the reality of his escape from misery through suicide, signalling a return to the initial tempo. Stotijn draws upon the range of colours in her voice to convey the monotony of the poet’s current existence and his elation when the solution presents itself; the latter is heightened by Drake’s playing of the furious running, tumbling semiquavers in the postlude.
One is often conscious of references to Tchaikovsky’s own unhappy life and frustrations. Many of these songs are subjective and expressive of intense emotion. The theme of nostalgia for an irretrievable past happiness appears frequently in the collection. In “Reconciliation”, although the poet declares the futility of longing for its return, Tchaikovsky’s setting clearly leaves little doubt that the subject cannot accept this. In a final verse of protest against fatalism, Stotijn’s tone freezes with misery and Drake’s postlude emphasises its false conclusions, as if not bearing to bring an end to the memories.
Never do the artists wallow in self-pity. Nothing is overdone. Discreet restraint is applied from the start. The writer of “At the ball” may be love-struck but she is as yet unsure of herself and unwilling to surrender to the new experience. In the final lines, as she succumbs to her dreams, Stotijn’s lingering over the vowel sounds reinforces the sense of hesitancy.
Links can certainly be heard with Tchaikovsky’s operatic writing. “Eugene Onegin” is reflected is “The Fearful Moment”. Just as Tatiana has to endure the tense uncertainty that follows a declaration of love, here Tchaikovsky, in a setting of his own lyrics, conveys the apprehension and embarrassment.
To balance the unhappy element of the composer’s output there are some unadulterated happy items. “The sun has set” projects a mood of confident expectation at the transition into night, with bright prospects of fulfilment reflected in smiling tone and breathless anticipation as the composer’s consistently upward-moving vocal phrases are perfectly projected.
Some critics have berated Tchaikovsky’s piano-writing: preludes and postludes have been accused of having little connection with the texts that they surround. There is some support for this view in the prelude to “Can it be day”, what the writer of the booklet note, Richard D. Sylvester, calls the “easy-going Andantino” with which the piano part begins seems to have no link either with the playful semiquavers into which it metamorphoses or the flowing phrases which eventually characterise the song.
The interpretations of this partnership belie that accusation. On several occasions the pianist defines or confirms the ultimate meaning of the song in his concluding solo bars. In “Why?” the voice breaks off, unsure of the answer to the question, to be succeeded by the pianist. On numerous occasions Drake’s use of the sustaining pedal extends the duration of a song and forces us to reflect on its message.Folk-style also plays its part. Included here is only one of Tchaikovsky’s songs for children “The Cuckoo”. This takes the form of a dialogue, not unlike a setting in Mahler’s “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”, with an imaginative and powerful piano accompaniment and the opportunity for the singer to characterise, which Stotijn does with the beaming grin of a true comedian and without being arch.
The great triumph here is “Had I only known?”, in which a girl bemoans her failure to anticipate her betrayal by a lover. The folksong-like piano figures at the start and the finish encase a dramatic narration in which the singer first utters repeated snatched phrases of bewilderment, echoed by the pianist. In the second stanza she turns to a more melodic style, growing in urgency and reaching a climax before resuming the initial fragmentary utterances, culminating in a descending scale passage worthy of an operatic soprano. The transformation of folksong into operatic aria has yet one more twist, as a final repetition of the phrase of regret she had been using throughout culminates in a long, wordless melisma down in to the depths of the singer’s chest register. This is a four-minute masterpiece!
Professor Sylvester has neatly condensed the commentary on each of the songs contained in his book “Tchaikovsky’s Complete Songs: A Companion with Texts and Translations” and Onyx have supplied those translations alongside transliterations of the original Russian texts. The book lists in each case the artists who have recorded each of the 103 Tchaikovsky songs. The length of that list underlines how rewarding these Romances have been to singers. Another advantage of the book is its inclusion of a CD containing recordings (made between 1910 and 1979) of twenty-two of Tchaikovsky’s songs.
To judge by the thought that has been put into this recital and also its execution, Christianne Stotijn can be expected to illuminate the Art-Song repertoire as she extends the range of songs.