Award-winner at the Montreal International Musical Competition in 2005, Canadian soprano Chantal Dionne also won three major awards at the 56th Gian Battista Viotti International Music Competition in [...]
They spoke about it
The romantic lover whispering sweet nothings in our ear is something almost everyone has dreamt of at one time or another. Though from a historical standpoint the romance was initially a Spanish verse form, it was quickly adopted by other European poets and eventually became a separate musical form. Very popular in France from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century, it represented a sort of link between popular music and concert music.
A true Slavic spirit could not fail to be touched by such tender, willingly bittersweet sentiments, and as the successor to the legacy of Glinka and, especially, Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943) would compose over 80 romances between 1890 and 1917. As a great piano virtuoso, Rachmaninov featured the instrument prominently in these compositions, employing it by turns in the role of narrator, confident or painter.
His first collection of Romansov, Opus 4, from 1892, demonstrates Rachmaninov’s natural tendency toward melancholy. Dedicated to his cousin Natalya Satine—whom he would marry some years later—”Ne poj, krasavica” (Sing not to me, O lovely one, in my presence) uses haunting vocal melismas to describe the immensity of the Georgian plains. “Davno-l’, moj drug” (It was not so long ago) seems almost operatic in the way it thrusts the listener into a universe of tragedy.
“Ja zhdu tebya” (I await you), the first song of Opus 14 (published in 1896) is a declaration of love tinged with a certain despair, as conveyed in the wide intervals of the vocal line and the dramatic treatment of the words “I wait.” The piano, playing the role of the initially discrete but increasingly arrogant lover, gradually takes over the work. The contrast with the next song, “Ostrovok” (Small Island), is striking. In this subtle pastoral, the charming vocal line is supported by a discrete accompaniment, barely disturbed by lightly undulating triplets. “Visennije vody” (Spring torrents), particularly demanding from a technical standpoint (Rachmaninov dedicated it to Anna Ornatskaya, his piano teacher), evokes the ferocity of a Russian spring, with its rivers awakening beneath the ice and their savage turbulence sweeping everything before them.
Written only a few weeks before his marriage to Natalya (the publication advance paid for their honeymoon), the twelve songs of Opus 21 express Rachmaninov’s happiness. Beneath the apparently joyful theme of “Siren” (Lilacs), based on three notes, impatience can be heard. In “Zdes’ khorosho” (How peaceful), dedicated to his wife, the piano becomes an attentive accomplice. The majestic opening phrases of “Ja ne prorok” (I am not a prophet) communicate an unassailable confidence, which melts into arpeggios that imitate the poet’s lyre.
Among the fifteen songs of Opus 26, “U mojevo okna” (At my window) remains the most popular. The voice and piano parts intertwine, exchanging lines and completing each other’s statements, inducing a delightful, dream-like state.
In 1912, Rachmaninov began a frequent correspondence with an admirer who signed her letters Ré (she was, in fact, the Armenian poet Marietta Shaginian). By the second exchange of letters, Rachmaninov had asked her to send him some poems that he could set to music, “of a sad rather than happy mood; bright colours do not come to me easily.” “Muza” (The muse), the first piece of Opus 34 and appropriately dedicated to Ré, relates a musician’s years of training under the tutelage of the Muse. The contemplative mood of the beginning soon makes way for increasing liveliness in the second verse, reaching a climax when the Muse herself shows the student how she would interpret this melody. “Dissonans” (Discord) is about a woman’s erotic fantasies. With great freedom (as evidenced by six changes of key and thirty-three changes of time signature!), the song, sung here in French, is almost symphonic in the way it develops every subtlety of the text.
Troubled and suffering from wrist pain, Rachmaninov had to take a break in 1916. Shaginian visited him in May of that year and brought him a new collection of selected poems, most by symbolist poets, which would soon become Opus 38. “Margaritki” (Daisies) captures nature’s intensity in one magical snapshot, dominated by the piano with the voice as counterpoint. “Krysolov” (The pied piper) is a retelling the famous story of the Hamelin piper, who in this version attracts only his lover, whom he soon abandons. In “Son” (Dream), the chime-like figures in the piano’s right hand create an almost hypnotic effect. “Es muss ein wunderbares sein” (Who can feel the bliss) master of contained emotion, waited instead until his thirties to take up the genre.
The first four songs on this recording, dated from 1841–1842, are based on texts by Victor Hugo. In “Oh! quand je dors” (When I sleep), Liszt refines the very nature of the French romance. The main theme reappears in the middle section as a subtle counterpoint played by the piano’s left hand before returning, bare and languid, to culminate in a gentle climax. Fed by the fervor of repeated chords, the voice rises with exuberance and radiance in “Enfant, si j’étais roi” (Child, if I were king). In the song’s second stanza (“If I were God”), the rumbling of thunder in the left hand leads the voice to a culmination before tenderness returns in the end. “Comment, disaient-ils” (‘How then, asked he) is more serenade-like, with an accompaniment resembling the strummed chords of a guitar, appropriate for a dialogue between a group of men and their lovers. The light, airy accompaniment of “S’il est un charmant gazon” (If there’s a lovely grassy plot) opens up great interpretive possibilities for the singer, who transports the listener to a world where the contemplation of nature’s beauty conjures up visions of the beloved. The recording closes with two intensely poetic lieder, “Bist du” (Is it you) and “Es muss ein wunderbares sein” (Who can feel the bliss), both of which are disarmingly simple but deeply expressive.
© Lucie Renaud
Translation by Peter Christensen