Terry Barfoot
MusicWeb International
July 2020

The soprano Julia Sitkovetsky had been making a big impression on the international scene up until the time when the epidemic put things on hold. This is her first recital disc, in which she is joined by the eminent pianist Roger Vignoles, one of the world’s leading accompanists.

The daughter of the eminent violinist Dmitri Sitkovetsky, she admits that she is not fluent in Russian and sometimes works with him as her language coach: ‘I’m actually not bilingual—I speak German pretty well, but that’s the closest I come to having a second language. With Russian I can understand about half of what’s being said, and I can read it pretty well, but I’m not fluent by any means: my dad was away so much when I was young and we didn’t have a Russian nanny or anything like that, so I didn’t grow up with it being spoken around me. If I need a Russian coach I use my dad, and in fact he was the language coach for this album.’ The combination of her professionalism and his insights means that the Russian heard in these songs sounds altogether idiomatic to a non-Russian ear, and doubtless to Russian speakers too.

Rachmaninov’s career can be divided into two halves: up to the time of the 1917 Revolution when he was in Russia, and after that when he was in Europe and America. All his songs date from the Russian years, and this recital disc contains many of the best of them. There are more than eighty in total and it is the last set, his Opus 38, which is positioned first on the disc. Gerard McBurney in his excellent sleeve notes mentions that this set of six songs gives a significant focus to the world of nature, beginning with one of the composer’s finest examples, In my garden at night, which sets the tone for this whole recital. The set also includes the song Daisies whose charming vocal line made it a great favourite with Rachmaninov.

Spring Waters, Op 14 No. 11, has abundant challenges for both singer and pianist, all of them in the cause of art. In many respects, they characterise the nature of Rachmaninov’s approach, having an ecstatic climax that is logically reached and compellingly released.

The shadings of the dynamic range are tellingly present throughout, and it would be dangerous for any critic to make too much of Stravinsky’s famous comment that Rachmaninov was ‘six feet six of Russian gloom’. Even so, that aspect of his personality can be present in the music, and Sitkovetsky certainly responds to it in her rendition of Brooding, Op 8 No. 3. Here the title and the music and the performance are unequivocal. However, other subtleties, such as lightness of touch, details of dynamic nuance and responsiveness to the text, are more important, in the piano part as much as in the vocal line. For example, Vignoles matches Ashkenazy in making the most of the shimmering sounds of the piano writing in Lilacs, Op 21 No. 5. It is no wonder that the composer made an arrangement for solo piano of this favourite song when he was in America, with the purpose of it being an encore item in his piano recitals.

The programme ends, fittingly enough, with Rachmaninov’s best-known composition for the soprano voice, his Vocalise, Op 34 No 14. Its popularity is reflected in the fact that it exists in three different versions: the present one for voice and piano, another for soprano and orchestra, and a third for orchestra alone. Each of these is equally successful, and here Sitkovetsky’s fluency and flexibility of phrasing are eminently satisfying.

The benchmark comparison performances are of course those by Elisabeth Söderström and Vladimir Ashkenazy on Decca, recorded during the 1970s. While the pre-eminence of their interpretations is not displaced by this new album, the versions by Sitkovetsky and Vignoles do form a notable addition to the catalogue and represent a remarkable achievement by an artist making her debut on disc.