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Arion - Voyage of a Slavic Soul
Natalya Romaniw (soprano)
Lada Valešová (piano)
rec. 2019, Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK
Sung texts with English translations enclosed.

The title of the album, Arion, is also the title of a song by Rachmaninov, which is a setting of a Pushkin poem ‘about a shipwreck from which the narrator is the only survivor’. There is no explanation in the liner notes why this title is used with the subtitle ‘Voyage of a Slavic Soul’. However, Arion was a poet and musician living in ancient Greece around 600 B.C. He was born in Lesbos and was active in Corinth. He was regarded as the most prominent player of the cithara and was the creator of the dithyramb, a genre that honoured Dionysos. He is best known through a myth that tells that during a voyage from Italy back to Corinth he was thrown overboard by the crew who wanted to steal his riches, but miraculously he was saved by dolphins. Pushkin, who was a well-read young man, must quite likely have known the old myth. The song is the last of the five songs by Rachmaninov in the present collection. The singer, Natalya Romaniw, who in spite of her name was born I Wales, derives her origin from Ukraine, and it was her beloved Grandfather who settled in Wales during the Second World War. And it was through him she learnt Ukrainian folk songs which awakened an interest in Slavic music and culture at large which in due time resulted in the present disc. It is dedicated to the memory of grandpa ‘Dido’ as he was known in the family circle.

Without knowing her origin it is quite easy to recognise a Slavic timbre in her singing. Several decades ago it was known as the Slavic wobble, but those days are far back in history. Natalya’s voice is bright at the top but has a mezzo-ish darkness in the lower end of her register. She is expressive and nuanced and linguistically idiomatic as far as I can judge. At forte her tone sometimes hardens and her vibrato widens, but it is still a fine instrument.

Her choice of repertoire is interesting. Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov are frequently heard and recorded and I hear them with pleasure. Rimsky-Korsakov is better known for his many operas and his colourful orchestral works, but he composed close to 100 art songs and issued two large collections of Russian folk songs, 140 in all. The three included here are little gems, melodious and attractive, and I wish other singers also would champion them. Margarita Gritskova included a handful in a recital issued a little more than a year ago, which also offered Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov (review).

Antonin Dvořák, contemporaneous with Rimsky-Korsakov, also devoted himself to songs. As early as 1865, when he was in his early twenties, he wrote a cycle titled Cypresses, encompassing 18 songs on poems by Gustav Pfleger Moravský. 23 years later he revised eight of them and issued them as Love Songs. Dvořák was also a wonderful melodist and these songs are goldmines for readers with a sweet tooth. My favourites at the moment are Oh, that longed-for happiness (tr. 4), So many a heart … (tr. 5), Around the house now I stagger [tr. 6) and Oh dear, matchless soul (tr. 11), but all have their good points. Tchaikovsky also belonged to the same generation, and his songs too go to the heart of those who like strong emotions. Why? (tr. 14) is probably the pick of the bunch but the other two have great merits as well.

Of the five Rachmaninov songs Spring Waters (tr. 18) with its rushing piano accompaniment is always a winner, and the dramatic and agitated Arion, mentioned above, though lesser-known, is well worth attention. Composed in 1912 it belongs to the later part of his song writing.

The two remaining composers have a lot in common, both Czech, both deeply interested in the Moravian folk music, and they knew each other. Janáček was the older and he deeply influenced Novák. Both devoted a lot of time to collecting folk songs around the turn of the previous century. The four brief songs by Janáček are fascinating. Love is very simple and very beautiful; Constancy is fast and rhythmical with a perpetuum mobile accompaniment; Rosemary is melancholy with elaborate accompaniment and Musicians is joyful and rhythmical. The composer employed folk music rhythms and harmonies in his operas, in particular Jenůfa, which was written during this period.

Novák’s The Fairytale of the Heart is probably the least known work on this disc and the five songs are truly beautiful. If I had to pick two – but who says I have to? – it would be Evening and When the day ends – the latter rounding off the programme so beautifully, sung with great care and inwardness.

Lada Valešová at the piano is a flexible duo partner and one can feel that she and Natalya Romaniw have reached a joint approach to the music through long hours of rehearsal. The result is a disc that should appeal to song enthusiasts at large and not only those with an interest in Slavic music.

Göran Forsling

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844 – 1908)
1. Softly the soul flew up to heaven, Op. 27 No. 1 [2:50]
2. The nymph, Op. 56 No. 1 [3:27]
3. Summer Night’s Dream, Op. 56 No. 2 [5:25]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841 – 1904)
Love Songs, Op. 83:
4. I. Oh, that longed-for happiness [2:02]
5. II. So many a heart is as though dead [2:20]
6. III. Around the house now I stagger [1:39]
7. IV. I know, with sweet hope [2:34]
8. V. Over the landscape a light slumber reigns [2:01]
9. VI. In the woods by the stream [2:07]
10. VII. In that sweet power of your eyes [2:00]
11. VIII. Oh dear, matchless soul [1:46]
Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893)
12. Gentle stars were shining upon us, Op. 60 No. 12 [3:47]
13. Can it be day? Op. 47 No. 6 [3:22]
14. Why? Op. 6 No. 5 [3:24]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873 – 1943)
15. Oh never sing to me again, Op. 4 No. 4 [4:44]
16. The Harvest of Sorrow, Op. 4 No. 5 [4:19]
17. How fair this spot, Op. 21 No. 7 [2:06]
18. Spring Waters, Op. 14 No. 11 [2:11]
19. Arion, Op. 34 No. 5 [2:40]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854 – 1928)
20. Love [1:44]
21. Constancy [1:17]
22. Rosemary [3:13]
23. Musicians [1:23]
Vitĕslav NOVÁK (1870 – 1949)
The Fairytale of the Heart, Op. 8:
24. I. Melancholy song [1:56]
25. II. Is it a dream? [3:03]
26. III. Evening [1:33]
27. IV. Autumn mood [1:21]
28. V. When the day ends [2:53]

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