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English Poets, Russian Romances

Vassily Savenko (bass), Alexander Blok (piano)
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Label: Hyperion
Recording details: September 2000
Studio 1, The State House of Broadcasting and Audio-Recording, Moscow, Russia
Produced by Alexander Volkov
Engineered by Alexander Volkov
Release date: September 2001
Total duration: 60 minutes 28 seconds

Here is a third disc of Russian songs by these artists to follow 'Russian Images' I and II (CDA67105 & CDA67205). It is devoted to Russian settings of verse originally in the English language, bearing witness to the enduring effect on the Russian imagination of English sensibility, particularly as expressed in its lyric poetry. Some of Russia's greatest writers—Tolstoy, Pushkin, Lermontov, Balmont, Pasternak and others—translated the verses of Shakespeare, Byron and Shelley. All are represented on this CD in settings by composers familiar (Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich) and not so familiar (Taneyev, Lyatoshinsky, Kabalevsky). Four of Shakespeare's sonnets are included in settings by Shostakovich and Kabalevsky, and a number of Shelley's poems set by Arensky, Taneyev, Rachmaninov and Lyatoshinsky.

The CD booklet includes the original English verses along with Russian transliterations.


‘Russian composers have set many English poems to music, and here we have some of the best’ (Classic FM Magazine)

‘Even more impressive than their two previous collections … a CD that merits a very strong recommendation’ (Fanfare, USA)
This recital explores settings in Russian of verse originally in the English language. The diverse sources—anonymous folk rhyme, Shakespeare, the celebrated Romantic poets Byron, Shelley, and the now largely forgotten Barry Cornwall (1787-1874)—bear witness to the enduring effect on the Russian imagination of English sensibility, particularly as expressed in its lyric poetry. Among the Russian writers who were inspired to either translate, or create original material, may be numbered some of the greatest names in Russian literature: Russia's national poet, Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), his contemporary Mikhail Lermontov (1814-184 ), Count Alexei Tolstoy (1817-1875), Konstantin Bal’mont (1867-1942), well-known figures of our own century like the great novelist Boris Pasternak (1890-1960), the symbolist poet and translator Samuil Marshak (1887-1964) and lesser-known figures such as Ivan Kozlov (1789-1840) and Pavel Kozlov (1841-1891).

The influence of one nation's culture on that of another takes many forms, but nowhere is it more apparent than in the realm of literature. The work of the ancient Greeks served as the inspiration for their Roman successors and with the Age of Enlightenment and the Romantic Movement, poetry became truly international. The verse of such writers as Goethe, Heine and Byron became familiar through the medium of translation to readers who were totally unacquainted with the original language in which the works were written. However, nineteenth-century practice was more concerned with the rendering of general mood, sentiment and feeling than literal or exact translation, and therefore, in some instances, a Russian version may differ significantly from the German, French or English original. Hence, in this collection the familiar title or opening lines of the English poem may in addition have been given another title, closer to its Russian rendering.

In the opening group of five songs—the vocal suite Recollection Opus 71 (Shelley's To Jane: The Recollection)—Anton Arensky (1861-1906) turned to the translation of Shelley's complete works by Konstantin Bal’mont, the poet best known outside Russia for his translation of Edgar Allan Poe's The Bells, which Rachmaninov used for his choral symphony, Op 35. Although barely completing his school education, Bal’mont became a polyglot of quite incredible attainment, having, according to some sources, forty foreign languages, according to others, sixteen. His great love was English poetry and Shelley in particular, and it was his translations of Shelley\ work between 1892 and 1899 that brought him to the Russian public's attention. It is thus poetry of the Romantic era perceived through Fin de siècle sensibility which made the work of this poet so attractive to composers of the period. Arensky, having studied at the St Petersburg Conservatory, became Professor of harmony and counterpoint at the Moscow Conservatory, among his pupils being Sergei Rachmaninov. The composer of more than seventy songs and duets, Arensky understood the fashionable taste of his lime, particularly the melancholy of the salon, and the critics of the period saw him as 'off shoot' of Tchaikovsky. His understanding of the piano and feeling for the voice combined to produce masterpieces of Russian art song.

The Opus 71 suite, circa 1905, displays Arensky's easily flowing, always melodious music which conveys perfectly the dream-like atmosphere of regret and longing for past happiness. The writing is very atmospheric and depicts a world of nature, in which forest, sky and water express the pain and joy of love.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) is best known as the composer of operas, including The Snow Maiden and The Golden Cockerel, as well as symphony poems like Scheherazade and Capriccio Espagnol, but his song output was considerable, numbering more than eighty, and the three represented here are settings after Byron. His 1897 setting Sun of the sleepless, composed during one of the most productive years of his career, is to a text by Count Alexei Tolstoy and was dedicated to a friend, Nikolai Shtrup. This elegiac song of regret is the work of the composer at the peak of his creativity.

The two songs from his Opus 26 group composed in 1882, are settings of words by Ivan Kozlov who, in spite of blindness and severe illness, became the first to introduce Byron to Russian readers who previously were only acquainted with his works through French translations. Byron's meteoric success with poetic epics like The Bride of Abydos, Don Juan and Childe Harold, coupled with his own dramatic life, had made him a cult figure of the Romantic Movement throughout Europe. Therefore it is not surprising that in Russia the self-exiled hero of Childe Harold was seen by many as a symbolic adversary of the existing order. The setting In moments to delight devoted (No 1), dedicated to the critic Semyon Kruglikov, reflects the power of undying love, while Zuleika's Song (No 4), taken from the The Bride of Abydos, is a tender lyrical miniature in which the Pasha's daughter, Zuleika, sings a song of love to Selim. It was dedicated to the composer's wife, Nadezhda.

For the English poets represented here, Barry Cornwall, the pseudonym of Bryan Waller Proctor, is the least known; yet in his lifetime he enjoyed enormous popularity and his Dramatic Scenes of 1819 were the forerunners of the Little Tragedies of his translator Alexander Pushkin. The first of the two settings by the great national composer Mikhail Glinka ( 1804-1857), I am here, Inezilla was written in 1834, which was in many ways a critical year for him. His father having died, Glinka left Berlin and his musical studies there, returning to Russia where he began work on his opera A Life for the Tsar, which was to bring him overnight success. This popular romance is an exuberant serenade set in the romantic Spain that meant so much to the composer, whereas Mary, composed in 1849, is a delightful and simple tribute to a girl. It was composed in Warsaw and dedicated to 'M.K.', identified as the Polish Maria Krzhisevich.

Byron's collection of poems, Hebrew Melodies, enjoyed enormous popularity in their day and inspired many artists, writers and composers throughout Europe. Mikhail Lermontov's translation of My soul is dark, is used by Mily Balakirev (1837-1910) in his 1859 setting known as Hebrew Melody. With its sinuous, oriental-style harmonies, it is a masterpiece by a man who was the leader of the group of nationalist composers known as 'The Mighty Handful'. The virtuoso accompaniment of the second version, as recorded here, imitating the sound of a harp, contrasts with the passionate vocal line.

Tsar Saul: Song of Saul before battle is the twelfth song in the collection of early works titled Yuniye Gody (Youthful Years), dating from 1857 to 1866 by Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881). This translation of Byron's Song of Saul before his last battle is by Pavel Kozlov, a competent poet/translator who spent much of his time in Italy and France. Kozlov provided the text for this dramatic setting of 1863 which, in characteristic fashion, the composer rewrote and later orchestrated. This is the second version and the declamatory style and piano fanfares are a foretaste of the opera Khovanshchina and The Field Marshal' from Songs and Dances of Death.

ln an album by Anton Arensky completes the settings of texts after Byron in this compilation. This 1809 rendering of Lines written in an album at Malta is by Mikhail Lermontov, whose discovery of Byron's poetry determined the main direction of his own writing. The simplicity of Arensky's musical style matches perfectly the occasional nature of the piece and the next setting, I fear thy kisses to words by Bal'mont/Shelley, reveals the composer at his most mellifluous. It was published posthumously.

Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915) is a figure of great significance in the Russian musical world, providing a link between Tchaikovsky, whose pupil he was, and composers such as Scriabin, Rachmaninov and Medtner, whom he taught. Taneyev studied piano and composition at the Moscow Conservatory, returned as a teacher in 1878, and went on to hold the post of Director from 1885 to 1889. Like his pupil Rachmaninov, he won the Conservatory's gold medal at the age of nineteen. Taneyev's Opus 17 published in 1905, consists of ten romances of which the first four represented here are settings of Bal'mont's translations of Shelley which reveal the composer's lyrical vocal style of the 1870s and 1880s. The Islet (No 1), an evocation of stillness, and My thoughts arise and fade (No 2), a sparkling duet for piano and voice, both capture Taneyev's appreciation for the original texts.

The third piece, Music, when soft voices die (No 3) is especially well suited to Taneyev's soft-grained cantabile expressiveness, while the last piece, The star of blessed dreams (No 4) is not dissimilar in style to the elegies of Glinka and Dargomyzhsky.

A second setting of Bal'mont's The Islet, after Shelley's The Isle (Op 14 No 2), by Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), is dedicated to the composer's sister-in-law Sofia Satina. This delicate setting of 1896 admirably portrays a picture of tranquil nature and reveals the composer's quality of tenderness.

The Ukrainian composer Boris Lyoatoshinsky (1895-1968) first qualified in 1918 as a lawyer at Kiev University before turning to the study of music at the Conservatory in the same city, with the celebrated composer Glière. He taught there before moving to Moscow in the 1930s to teach, and his own compositions cover the full range of musical genres, including five symphonies, two operas, choral and chamber works, as well as numerous songs. Both songs represented here are settings of Bal'mont's translations of Shelley. Time long past from the 1924 settings of four Shelley/Bal'mont poems, is an elegy upon the evanescence of all that is dear to mankind, with its constantly repeated haunting, funereal motif. The dramatic, declamatory style of Ozymandias, also of 1924, corresponds to the bleak imagery of what is perhaps Shelley's most famous poem.

Indisputably one of the great masters of twentieth-century music, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), seemed able to turn his gifts to any genre of composition. His output of 147 opus numbers includes fifteen symphonies, six concertos, two operas, an operetta, three ballets, fifteen string quartets, chamber music, film scores, and incidental and vocal music of all kinds. The Second World War affected every aspect of life in the Soviet Union and Shostakovich was evacuated to Kuibishev where in 1942 he composed his Opus 62—Six Romances on Verses by British Poets. The King's Campaign (No 6) and Shakespeare's Sonnet 66 (No 5) are from this group. The brevity and piquancy of the first song, to Russian words by Samuil Marshak (1887-1964) is based on a children's rhyme more familiar to most English as The Grand Old Duke of York and is dedicated to fellow-composer Vissarion Shebalin. The setting of Sonnet 66, dedicated to the musicologist Ivan Sollertinsky, is of a translation by Boris Pasternak, the author of Doctor Zhivago. The sombre mood of the sonnet is perfectly matched by Shostakovich's stem and unyielding gravity and the work clearly meant a great deal to him, as he later arranged it for soloist and small orchestra. Giving it a new opus number. The first performance of Opus 62 was given on 6 June 1943, in the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory by the baritone Efrem Flaks accompanied by the composer.

The Soviet composer Dmitri Kabalevsky ( 1904-1987) displayed diverse artistic talent from early childhood but did not pursue a musical career until much later. He studied composition at the Moscow Conservatory under Catoire and Myaskovsky, as well as continuing his piano studies under Gol'denveyzer, and went on to enjoy a highly successful career as composer, teacher and administrator. His many works cover opera, choral, symphonie and vocal music. He had intended for some time to write a song cycle based on Shakespeare sonnets but was daunted by the formidable difficulties of setting texts of such complexity. However, during the years 1953-1955, Kabalevsky finally set ten sonnets, his Opus 52, to Samuil Marshak's translations. The work was given its first performance on 12 April 1955 in the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory by the bass Ivan Petrov, accompanied by the composer. The three settings on this album are chosen for their contrasting moods. Sonnet 27 (No 2), is a powerful expression of love which allows the lover no peace, while Sonnet 153 (No 5), with its tripping delicacy, conveys light-heartedly a mood of playful conceit. At the centre of Sonnet 8 (No 7), is a play upon the idea of an all-pervading harmony, which seems an especially appropriate conclusion to this diverse selection.

Edward Morgan © 2001

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