This writer attended the solo vocal concert on November 20th at the Harmony Hall, downtown Jerusalem. Most of the audience was from the Russian-speaking community. The program consisted of romances and opera arias. Eleonore Plotkin offered brief introductions to the songs and artists, explaining the reason for including two Tchaikovsky romances and one Prokofiev opera aria. Separated by more than 30 years, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff expressed mutual admiration for each other’s music. Tchaikovsky’s own songs were highly influential on the young composer, this heard, in particular, in Rachmaninoff’s early songs. Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff’s shared fate was that they both left Russia and both suffered longing for their home country. One of the finest pianists of his day, conductor and composer Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff was born in Veliky Novgorod in 1873 and died in the USA in 1943.
The concert opened with mezzo-soprano Svetlana Sandler’s performance of two Tchaikovsky romances. Sandler immigrated to Israel some 20 years ago; she has performed with the Israeli Opera Studio, the Israel Vocal Arts Institute, The Israeli Opera, the Hannover State Opera, the Alte Frankfurt Opera and the Opéra National de Lorraine et Nancy as well as solo appearances with orchestras. Her powerful and fine mix of head- and chest voice was matched by dramatic flair and emotional expression, contrasted with lyrical- and light-weight moments, in which she created a delicate weaving of melodic lines through the piano texture. Sandler and pianist Irina Zheleznova presented a compelling reading of “Do Not Sing, My Beauty” (opus 4), composed by the 19-year-old Rachmaninoff in his first setting of a Pushkin poem, the folk-like melodic line set against a rich piano canvas of harmonic tensions, modal chords and inner voices articulately sketched into the rich keyboard texture:
‘Do not sing for me, my beauty,
Your sad songs of yore;
For they wake deep from my memory
Another life and a distant shore.’ (Translation: Edward Lein)
Young bass-baritone Yacov Strizak immigrated to Israel a year year ago. In his native Russia, he studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and performed under Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky Theatre (St. Petersburg). Today Strizak is a member of the Israeli Opera Studio and Musica Aeterna. In the Rachmaninoff concert, he opened with Kutuzov’s aria from Prokofiev’s 1942 opera “War and Peace”, convincingly creating the general’s dilemma in which he decides that only by retreating and potentially sacrificing Moscow would there be any hope of victory. In his performance of “In My Soul” (text: Nicolai Minsky) from Rachmaninoff’s Romances opus 14, he and Zheleznova created the song’s still, dejected mood, with Strizak’s sensitive singing of the somewhat exotic melodic line communicating the hopeless feelings of failed love.
Born in Yaroslavl, Russia, Olga Senderskaya graduated from the Marinsky Theater Academy of Young Opera Singers and the St. Petersburg Conservatory. The recipient of many awards, Senderskaya performs in opera houses throughout Europe. In the Rachmaninoff Festival concert, she performed some songs from the composer’s “Six Songs” opus 38 (1916), his last set of songs composed in the romance genre. These last songs show the composer’s use of a subtler harmonic- and melodic language as influenced by Symbolist poetry, repertoire in which he achieves a unique synthesis of his powerful style of keyboard writing with sensitive insight as to vocal expression. In "At Night in my Garden", with delicate piano figures suggesting the warm, sad night described in the Armenian poet Avetik Isaacian’s text, Sadarsky joined Zheleznova’s evocative, transparent textures with varied vocal hues to give meaning to different words and ideas. As well as her fragile treatment of “Dreams”, in its delicate musical textures with a soft-textured, lulling accompaniment creating the elusive nature of the text, we heard “Au”, sometimes called “The Quest” (words: Konstantin Balmont) with the cry of pain bursting out in the last line to express that, once again, one’s love can not be found. Olga Sadarsky communicates with face and eyes, affording even the non-Russian speaker involvement in the matter at hand.
In baritone Igor Tavrovsky’s performance of the superb miniatures, no gesture was left unaddressed. “When Yesterday We Met”, of the 15 songs of Rachmaninoff’s Opus 26, composed when the composer was 33, was nostalgic and fraught with anguish and disappointment. In the immensely dramatic “I Am Alone Again” (text: Ivan Bunin) Tavrovsky’s focused and compelling performance presented the drama of the soul in a real and accessible manner. In the romance, a young man is aware his beloved is leaving him:
‘I am alone again.
How bright, how decorated is the spring!
And tell me: Why have you become so melancholy,
Why have you become so affectionate?
But you are silent, as weak as a flower…
Hush now! I need no confession…
I have recognized this affection of parting…
I am alone again.’
In “Yesterday We Met” (words: Yakov Polonsky), also from Opus 26, a man happens on a chance meeting with a former lover; the music itself offers insight into the delicate situation, with its constant changes and pauses. Tavrovsky also performed Aleko’s Cavatina from Rachmaninoff’s opera “Aleko”, a tour-de-force of vocalism and drama in which Aleko remembers when he and the gypsy women Zemfira were in love and his pain when she finds love with a younger man.
Pianist Irina Zheleznova’s input to the whole evening was powerful and significant. Zheleznova studied at the Tchaikovsky State Conservatory Academy (Moscow), earning a Ph.D. in chamber music. She went on to become associate professor at the Uzbek State Conservatory and has won several duo-piano competitions. She immigrated to Israel in 2008, teaches at the Israel Conservatory of music in Tel Aviv and is a member of faculty of the Keshet Eilon Music Center. Superbly shaped, inspiring and imaginative, her playing was as integrative a part of the soul of each piece as were the singing, the songs and their words. From fragile textures, to sweeping lyrical moments, from painful bitterness and heartbreak to intense drama, Zheleznova’s clean, precise and brilliant playing was inspirational.
For some reason, Rachmaninoff’s eighty five songs, composed between 1893 and 1916 (all before he left Russia) and grouped into seven sets, are the most neglected part of his oeuvre. Mostly using texts from prominent Romantic Russian poets, they represent the composer’s musical development, his poignant word painting and his most intense emotions. There is no doubt that these romances are fine concert fare and probably best handled by Russian-speaking artists. As a non-Russian speaker, I was at a disadvantage without the texts to follow. However, the splendid performance and total involvement of the five outstanding artists drew one into the beauty and strong emotion of this music in an experience that was moving. Let’s hear more of these outstanding artists!