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Monteverdi: Lamento della ninfa

What fun it’s been to host this week and ponder my favorite songs and performances! For my last day, I thought I’d look back to one of my earliest singer memories, one of the first pieces to leave a huge impression on me as a singer, and the first piece that got me hooked on early music. My big solo senior year of high school was Monteverdi’s Lamento della ninfa. There’s so much to love about this piece. One thing I adore is the little trio of shepherds acting as the nymph’s “back-up singers” (2 tenors and a bass). This clip I’ve shared leaves out the first part, but the piece as a whole includes an ensemble section both before and after the nymph’s lament where they set up and conclude the story. In the main section, there is a totally different vibe as she passionately laments her fate, and the shepherds interject with narration and commentary. There is something about the relentlessness of that very simple, repetitive four-note ground bass that is so heart-rending. I can’t get enough of those excruciatingly beautiful dissonances and the shape of the line and the rhythms he uses so wonderfully to evoke her distress.

I looked to see if i could find a recording of it that I liked, and was pleased to see one of my favorite mezzo-sopranos, Bernarda Fink, had recorded it, and gorgeously so! (Figures I should end this week with a nod to yet another mezzo role model!) Fink is maybe not quite as famous as some of the big names I’ve mentioned on previous days, but I look up to her very much as she comes up quite often for me when I’m researching repertoire, especially art song – she very often seems to have recorded whatever it is I’m working on, and I always love what she does. On this piece I think she has the perfect balance, for my taste, of the clarity of tone needed for this style but still with so much body and color and spin. And on top of that she gives such a detailed and emotional delivery of the text and character. I was very glad to happen upon this interpretation of one of my all-time favorite pieces!

Thanks to NYFOS for inviting me to host!

Song of the Day: October 6

This week’s Song of the Day curator is Russian soprano and international star Dina Kuznetsova. You can hear Dina in NYFOS’s upcoming show From Russia to Riverside Drive on November 8 (Boston) and November 10 (New York), performing songs by Rachmaninoff, alongside some of the Jazz Age music that Rachmaninoff heard during his time living in New York.

from Dina Kuznetsova:

Some of my most important musical experiences have come from participating in programs with New York Festival of Song, and this entry has a connection to Michael Barrett’s own from the previous week. One of the most beloved programs I’ve ever done was was created for NYFOS by Steven Blier and Michael Barrett, and dedicated to the relationship Dvořák had with the American Spiritual. The emotional roller coaster of alternating Dvořák’s songs and traditional Spirituals with their deep well of human experiences, and of finding the connections between them, has stayed with me for many years.

The whole program is dear to my heart, but one song in particular comes to my mind with haunting regularity, with its seemingly simple melody and straightforward emotion. When I began researching it, I saw that it followed Dvořák throughout his life and he kept reworking it; so maybe it stayed with him, too.

The song is the last song of Pisne Milostne, op. 82 (“Love Songs”), 1888; text is by Moravian poet Gustav Pfleger-Moravsky

The translation is as follows:

O dear soul, the only one
That still lives in my heart.
My thoughts surround you,
Though evil fate separates us.
If I were only a singing swan,
I would fly to you and reach you.
With my very last sigh
I would sing out my heart for you,
yes, with my last sigh.

Dvořák first wrote the melody for his early song cycle, Cypresses. He was 24 at the time and in love. The piano accompaniment, and even the melody itself, were slightly different from their final form. Those songs were not published, but in 1887 Dvořák turned back to them, rearranged some of them for a string quartet, and in 1888 reworked them again to create the cycle, Pisne Milostne. Here is an excerpt containing the song, performed by Delme String Quartet:

So often, especially when I am alone, in nature, maybe hiking, and my mind empties of stress and extraneous noise, this melody and these words come to me with their vision of beauty and devotion—“O dear soul, the only one…”

Here is Bernarda Fink singing it:

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