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Tchaikovsky: Again, as before, I am alone

To celebrate NYFOS’s 30th Anniversary Season, Song of the Day is featuring some recordings from our archives, along with excerpts from program notes that accompanied them. (If the recording does not appear below in your email, please click on the title above to play the song on our website.)

Снова, как прежде, один (“Again, as before, I am alone”) op. 73, no. 6 (1893)
Music by Tchaikovsky; poem by Ratgauz
Sung by Alexey Lavrov in Pyotr the Great (2017)

 

Again, as before, I am alone.
Once more I am filled with deep sadness.
A poplar is standing outside the window
Bathed in moonlight.

A poplar is standing outside the window,
Its leaves whispering of something.
The sky is filled with burning stars…
Where, my beloved, are you now?

I cannot describe to you
All that is happening within me…
My friend, please pray to God for me,
As I am praying for you.

From the Program Notes by Steven Blier:
Tchaikovsky’s early death at age 53 was a tragedy—and a mystery. The stated cause was cholera, contracted either through unboiled water (the official version) or sexual contact (a privately rumored story). But there are enough alternate explanations and differing testimonies to fill several books. Several of them lie on my table as I write these words, with analyses that can get unpleasantly graphic. One theory is that the composer chose to end his life because of his overwhelming, impossible love for his nephew, Bob Davidov, to whom he dedicated the Pathétique Symphony. Another is that his suicide was ordered by the Tsar after the composer had seduced the wrong fifteen-year old boy. The most convincing, and the most chilling, is that he acceded to a sentence of suicide handed down by a hastily assembled “court of honor” composed of fellow alumni from his old law school. It seems that a certain Duke Stenbok-Fermor was disturbed by the attentions Tchaikovsky was lavishing on his nephew, and wrote a letter of accusation to the Tsar. Nicolai Jacobi, the man appointed to deliver the letter, decided to give it instead to his colleagues at the School of Jurisprudence, in order to avoid the possibility of scandal and exile for Tchaikovsky. Their grim verdict was that the composer should take his own life. The symptoms of arsenic poisoning are very similar to those of cholera. There is some strong evidence that this is true—stemming from a decades-old confession, passed through several generations, from Nicolai Jacobi’s widow.

We’ll never know the truth absolutely—whether it be cholera, depression, suicide, or decades of cigarettes and alcohol. What I do know is this: Tchaikovsky’s last symphony was his most tragic piece of music, seen at its premiere as a memento mori, a requiem. There is a strange moment in the first movement when a theme emerges in the trombones, bearing no relationship to the music surrounding it. It is a quote from the Russian Orthodox Mass for the Dead: “And may his soul rest with the souls of all the saints.”

From his earliest songs to his final ones, Tchaikovsky returned again and again to the subject of death, often offering comfort to those left behind to mourn. But his last song is his most desolate, a fitting companion to the Pathétique Symphony: “Again, as before, I am alone.” He knew the game was over.

Fedor Chaliapin sings “Song about a Flea” (Mussorgsky)

Today I’m introducing you to a recording of one of the greatest Russian opera singers, Fedor Chaliapin. He was a man of multiple talents: a gifted drawer, oil painter and sculptor; he was very good at writing, showing a lively mind, power of observation and wit. His legacy would be enough to fill several biographies. Chaliapin performed 70 bass roles, about 400 romances and songs; he played violin and cello, directed and conducted operas, starred on stage and in films; he was also the author of newspaper articles and feuilletons, a caricaturist, and a lyricist. Rachmaninoff wrote about Chaliapin, “I’m in love with Fedor like a college girl! He possesses unlimited talents in everything he puts his hands on…”.

But first and foremost Chaliapin went down into history as a phenomenal singer and actor. He was a master of transformation into his character, always being genuine. The audience adored him for that.

While enjoying Chaliapin’s performances, I keep thinking about acting abilities. What role do they play in a singer’s skills list? Especially nowadays as audience has grown more demanding and appreciative of this part of opera. I come to a conclusion that it’s a must. It can be attributed to mass popularity of movies and TV. As a spectator in an opera house I expect to believe a singer the same way I believe Meryl Streep in a movie. But as a singer I’m well aware of the other challenges an opera singer meets. For one, we don’t have a chance of a retake, all things are happening in the moment. You have to follow the conductor, to be in tune with your partners, feel at ease in your costume (which in some roles is rather uncomfortable), and, to top it all, to sing well. That’s a lot to have on your plate! But you will never win the audience unless you are an inspired, compelling actor.

This is why Chaliapin is so important to me. His records are a master class from an incomparable musician and actor. Each and every word, pause and intonation has a meaning. Nothing was left to chance. Chaliapin rehearsed a lot, and also created his own costumes and designed his own makeup. Here is his reminiscence of finding the image of Ivan the Terrible, the Russian tsar.

“I went to the Tretyakov Gallery to see the pictures of the Tsar made by Schwarz, Repin and the sculpture by Antokolsky… Somebody mentioned that Mr. Chokolov, engineer, also has also the Ivan’s portrait made by Victor Vasnetsov… The combination of the details given by Repin, Vasnetsov and Schwarz helped me compile rather look-alike makeup and figure.”

Now please listen to the recorded “ Song about a Flea” by Mussorgsky (text: Goethe, “Faust”, translation into Russian A.N. Strugovshchikov)

Once upon time there lived a King,
And a flea was always at his side.
He cared for him more than for his own brother,
A flea? Ha-ha-ha… a flea…
Ha-ha-ha-ha….The Flea!

The King once summons his tailor
And says, “You listen closely, fool:
You have to make a velvet kaftan
for my beloved friend.”
Kaftan for a flea? Ha-ha-ha!
For the flea? Ha-ha-ha! Kaftan!
Ha-ha-ha-ha! Kaftan!
For the flea! Kaftan!

With gold and velvet now
The Flea has been adorned.
And at the King’s majestic court
He is given a free hand!
Ha-ha-ha! To the Flea! Ha-ha-ha!

The King makes him the Minister,
A star is placed on his breast,
And now, watch! The crowd of fleas
Is filling the whole palace space!

And in a while the life has come
That pretty Maids of Honor,
And even her Majesty the Queen
Could no longer feel happy,
And no longer clean!

They dare not complain,
Afraid to touch the beast.
But we are not so gentle,
We crush them with a fist!
Ha-ha-ha!…

One of Chaliapin’s friends shares his impressions of this performance:
“It’s late night, quiet, everybody sleeping—and I see Chaliapin-Mefisto, but not the one in “Faust” with makeup and props he uses for this role—the different one, singing “The Flea”. He is dressed casually, his face is an ordinary one. He comes up to the piano, still animated with a friendly chat. But something alien has already penetrated into his chiseled features, and his eyes glisten with different light. He is still our Fedor who can crack a joke, but a little distant, unknown, restless and almost frightening. One more moment, an elusive move—and Chaliapin is no longer here. We see a different figure. The face is immobile and impassive, the mouth is hard and tense, but—quiet unexpectedly—a mysterious threatening smile comes on.”

We are fortunate to have a number of the great master’s records. Luckily, he liked to be recorded. Behind the recording machines he saw millions of listeners. What a great gift for future generations!

I’d like to end this post with a couple of facts to know:
– In 1940 Dmitry Shostakovich made his orchestra version of this song.
– The are two productions of “The Flea”: one with Mussorgsky’s music, the other one as “Mefisto’s song in Ourbach’s Cellar”, music by Beethoven.

Shirley Verrett sings Lady Macbeth’s aria (Verdi)

Today I’d like to present one of my favorite recordings of opera repertoire. It is the aria of Lady Macbeth from Verdi’s opera, sung by Shirley Verrett. The recording was made at La Scala, Milan, in 1975. I view this performance as not just one of the best embodiments of this heroine, but also as an outstanding model of vocal technique, artistry and incredible stage presence.

I admire singers like Shirley Verrett, Luciano Pavarotti, Elena Obraztsova, and Cesare Siepi. Not only were they gifted with wonderful voices, but they also attained perfection in using them. It’s my belief that real excitement in opera cannot be achieved without perfection of vocal technique. It doesn’t matter how gifted by nature the singer is, he or she needs a perfect instrument to convey all their feelings and thoughts to the audience. This should be done not just by mimics or movement but first and foremost with the voice.

Still, perfect voice is not enough. To make the character alive the singer must charge it with his extreme energy. In general, I think singing is a result of emotions a person feels that are too overwhelming for simple words, and the inside flame can be expressed only by singing. The emotions can be happy or sad, but they have to be strong. Good singing can’t happen without that strong ardor inside. The singer has also to understand the character in depth, absorb his special traits. Combining all three important components – technique, artistry and energy – is a great challenge. The singers who are able to do this are rare, admired by the public and unforgettable. Shirley Verrett is one of them. Fortunately, her recordings are plenty. I keep listening, enjoying them, learning from them. For example, Desdemona’s aria (Covent Garden, 1983) or Tosca (the Met, 1978), to name a few.

I’ve picked up this very aria as a pinnacle of exceptional technique control, beauty and fullness of sound, highest drama, power and energy. I think the ovation given by the demanding La Scala public speaks for itself.

Pelageya sings “Under Willow”

When I was asked to write a blog about my favorite vocal pieces I had some doubts:  Am I a good story teller? Is my English good enough to tell it the way I’d like? How do I choose just four pieces out of so many favorites? Actually, what are the criteria anyway … ?

The only certain thing was—if I do it, I will start with a Russian folk song. Because folk songs are the reservoir of Russian vocal treasure and because they are personal to me. My first steps into the world of music and singing were made with folk songs.

I grew up with a grandmother who was always singing: while doing housework, picking
mushrooms and berries in the woods, taking a rest… From her I heard most of them: happy and sad songs, songs for work and holidays, wedding songs, funeral ones, funny and joking ones.  One can express anything and everything with a song. A folk song is like a prayer, a meditation. It clears one’s soul and brings comfort to one’s heart.

For this blog I’ve picked out the Russian folk song “Under Willow”. Most folk songs are anonymous, but the names of the writers of some are known. The lyrics for this song belong to Nikolay Veryovkin, the officer of Nevsky Infantry. He fought in the Russian-Persian War of 1826-1828, the Russian-Turkish War of 1828-1829 and the Polish Campaign of 1830-1831. The song pictures a wounded Russian warrior lying under the willow, watching a black raven flying over his head. In Slavonic mentality and folklore black raven is a prophetic bird that lives up to 300 years, keeps secrets, leads to hidden treasures, predicts death. In songs this ominous bird often flies over battlefield and then brings families news of their son’s or husband’s death.

The dying warrior asks the raven to fly to his motherland and tell his father, mother and wife that they shouldn’t expect him to return.

Under the green willow
The wounded cossack was lying
Oy du, under the green one
The wounded cossack was lying.

A raven bird over him was flying,
Began croaking loudly.
Ay du, raven wouldn’t fly
Hadn’t he smelled a good bite.

Black raven, don’t croak over my head,
I am still a cossack alive.
You’d better fly to my father’s and mother’s home,
Give the kerchief soaked in my blood
To my young and lovely wife.

Tell them, raven, that I’d got married
To another girl.
That I’ve found a bride
In the open field, across the river.

Was our wedding quiet, subdued,
Under the willow bush,
Oy du, quiet, subdued
Under the willow bush…

The matchmaker was the saber sharp,
The best man was bayonet of damask steel.
Oy du, saber sharp
And the bayonet was the best man.

A swift bullet married us fast
And motherland wed us.
Oy du, swift bullet
and motherland us wed.

I chose this song because it resembles the northern folk songs from the region where I was born and raised—Komi Republic. Northern songs are different from other regions; they inherited the melodies and the moods of the nations that lived in those parts of Russia. They reflect the northern landscape—wild nature, a lot of snow, rivers and swamps. And they resemble, more then other types of Russian songs, a prayer or a meditation.

In conclusion, I’d like to introduce the performer. The soloist is Pelageya, a Russian singer who debuted on stage as a little girl. She remains one of the public’s favorites. She sings Russian folk songs, romances and pop songs. At 13, after winning a number of vocal competitions, she received an invitation from the great Russian cellist, outstanding musician and public figure Mstislav Rostropovich to perform at the Evian Music Festival, alongside with Evgeny Kissin, Ravi Shankar, Paata Burchuladze, B.B. King. Galina Vishnevskaya, in her French Press interview, called Pelageya “the future of the opera world”. I’m sure the singer would have been a great success, had she chosen opera. But I’m also happy for the choice she has made. Thanks to her arrangements, folk songs acquire new, sometimes unexpected sounds, and become hits with young audiences, ensuring this genre continues to thrive.

Sergei Taneyev: The Restless Heart Is Beating

My Tchaikovsky concert isn’t till early next year, but I want to get it squared away now before the autumn hits me like a ton of bricks. Having decided to include a little group of songs by Tchaik’s teachers and students, I received some expert guidance from Antonina Chehovska, the soprano soloist for the project. She had wonderful ideas for Rubenstein, Arensky, and Taneyev, and I appreciated her promptness and her enthusiasm. Following up her suggestions, one thing (the online music library IMSLP) led to another (YouTube and Spotify) and I soon came across this beauty by Taneyev: “The Restless Heart Is Beating,” a song that combines elegance with driving passion. I would describe it as a Slavic version Schubert’s “Die junge Nonne,” or perhaps his “An Schwager Kronos” relocated to the Steppes. Taneyev was a superb songwriter, and that makes choosing just one or two a kind of sweet torture. But I can hear baritone Alexey Lavrov tearing my heart out with this piece, and I think I’m going with it.

By the way: I try to make it a practice to buy actual copes of music I want to program after I have rooted around IMSLP.  And the best place to do that is at Glendower Jones’ e-emporium, Classical Vocal Reprints. But of course, you knew that.

Here are Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Ivari Ilja flaunting their fabulosity in this song:

Blier’s Blog: “Letters from Spain” / Day 5

DAY 5:  April 26, 2015

I do most of my programming staring at my computer screen. I don’t sit down and play through the show before finalizing my NYFOS concerts. I just…gaze at my Mac…and imagine how it’s all going to work. This method seems to be working for me. The last bunch of shows have been very strong, and these days it seems best to work by instinct.

Still, there is a scary moment of truth at the first run-through when I actually hear the concert in order. D-Day was Friday. And yes, I was surprised—but in a good way. The program order works pretty much as I had predicted, but on an emotional level Letters from Spain packs much more of a punch than I was expecting. For one thing, I hadn’t foreseen how much drama and color Alexey was going to bring to his Shostakovich songs. On the page they look like a delicious appetizer course; in his hands, they are more like dinner at The Four Seasons. I also hadn’t quite absorbed the scope of the Bolcom Canciones de Lorca, super-saturated music done to a turn by Theo Lebow. Let me just state that the boy has cojones. So does Bill Bolcom, who found a way to bring Lorca’s passion and sensitivity blazing into life. Like a lot of Bill’s music, these songs work on so many levels: a brilliant reading of the poems, a multifarious exploration of Spanish musical styles from flamenco to tango to Cuban dance, and a mini-biography of this iconic writer.

cast for April 28th

We were originally going to do this recital without an intermission in New York, but we’ve decided to give the audience a 10-minute breather before Corinne’s exquisite Guastavino songs. Hearing her sing “Se equivocó la paloma,” I remembered why they call this composer “the Schubert of the Pampas.” The two composers share the same kind of elegance and transparency, along with those heartbreaking changes of harmony when melodies repeat.. It takes real mastery to write something so simple and so perfect, and it’s a special treat to hear them sung by such a colorful, warm voice. When the cast sang the encore—another Guastavino tune—I started to tear up. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going into the other room to have a good cry.

–Steven Blier

Blier’s Blog: “Letters from Spain” / Day 3

DAY 3 April 23, 2015

There are some recipes that require you to mix ingredients in two different bowls and then combine the contents before cooking them. That’s what happened this week: Alexey could work Monday but not Tuesday, Corinne and Theo could work Tuesday but not Monday. Wednesday we poured the two brews together.

Corinne was singing when Alexey tiptoed into my apartment. I didn’t see him come in, but I could tell he’d arrived just by listening to Corinne. She subtly went from “I’m rehearsing” mode to “I’m performing mode,” as if her Guastavino song had put on heels and lipstick when company arrived.

april full ensemble

I thought it would be smart to get to the three trios as soon as possible, because everyone had been spending the lion’s share of their preparation on their solo material. Michael and I plowed into the intro to Lorca’s “Anda, jaleo,” in which Alexey has the first of the three verses. In the spirit of “I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down,” Alexey let out with a roar that practically knocked me off my chair. In the opera world, size matters; it is the men’s locker room of music. Corinne and Theo have their feet squarely in that world, singing opera all over the world. Exerting exquisite muscular control they kept their eyebrows from hitting the ceiling, and then made their own counteroffer—“No, by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin.” They belted out their verses at the top of their lungs, and we suddenly had a team—and a great one. What a blessing these three singers are, one of the best casts we have ever had at NYFOS (and the bar is high).

For me, yesterday was a huge relief. Tuesday had been a long, long day at the piano, totaling out to about 6 hours of playing—and none of them very beautiful or comfortable. By evening my arm was sore, my spirits were low, my mood was grim. But by some miracle I had not worn myself out to the danger point, and I recovered to have quite a decent day of music-making. There are five spots in the Bolcom that still need repair, but on Sunday there were only five spots that sounded decent at all. Now, that is progress.

–Steven Blier

Blier’s Blog: “Letters from Spain” / Day 1

DAY 1 – April 21, 2015
We’ve had two days of rehearsal on LETTERS FROM SPAIN, a program about which I had some trepidation. No surprises there—I am always freaked out before I start a project, certain that I have miscalculated in some fatal way. So my dominant feeling right now is relief, for two reasons: the music and the cast, reassuringly great in both cases.

It began yesterday when baritone Alexey Lavrov came in for his first rehearsal. He’d auditioned for me about a year ago and I was struck by the aliveness of his singing, his theatrical daring, his burly voice. So I should have been prepared for the tidal wave he unleashed when he sang the Shostakovich Spanish Songs for Michael and me. In his hands these simple folksongs became vivid dramas, filled with more charm, humor, and emotion than I ever imagined possible. This guy is a life force and he sings from the gut. You don’t need to speak Russian to understand what Alexey is saying.

Later on we were working on a song by Antón García Abril set to a Lorca poem. Rather unsure as to whether this was a smart move on my part, I blurted out, “You know…this poem strikes me as very gay.” Silence. “Of course, most of Lorca’s poems seem that way to me.” Michael Barrett started to run interference. “Well,” he said, “that would be your perspective of course…” But Alexey was not fazed. He took a moment and then said, “Oh yes, yes—I see what you mean. Something intense, something private, something forbidden, something you couldn’t say just anywhere, something that you wait for the right moment to share.” The three of us talked about cultural mores in early twentieth century Spain, sharing stuff we’d read. Then Alexey sang the song again, this time with such startling intensity and longing that I literally began to shiver. When Alexey rehearses he likes to sing right at you, turning you into his scene partner. It’s a kind of musical “truth or dare,” and you need to summon your strength to face him down. “More like that?” he asked. “Yes,” Michael and I said. “Exactly like that.”

Lebow, Winters and Blier rehearsing

Today we saw Corinne Winters and Theo Lebow. I’ve worked with both of them before, and I would say there were no surprises…but after the shock of yesterday’s encounter with Alexey I was especially alive to their singing—their tremendous musicianship coupled to an amazing vocal aesthetic. Corinne has to have one of the most opulent voices on the current scene, and it’s a treat to hear her lavish that beautiful sound on Hugo Wolf and Guastavino. Theo is tackling four of Bolcom’s Canciones de Lorca, an insanely brilliant piece of music that has colonized our lives for the last few weeks. It was originally written for tenor and orchestra, and the piano reduction is dauntingly difficult. (The vocal line is pretty demanding too.) But we’re getting our act together, and Theo’s first reading was nothing short of stunning. That boy can wail, and it turns out that he has Latin hips after all—something he let loose in the last song, a salsa in praise of Cuba. I was dead tired and running on fumes as I heard myself say, “Can we just do the Cuba song one more time?”

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