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Pauline Viardot and Johannes Brahms: Les Bohémiennes

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.)

Les Bohémiennes
Music by Pauline Viardot and Johannes Brahms
Performed by Dina Kuznetsova, soprano; and Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano
in A Bel Canto Dynasty (2004)

 

From the Program Notes by Steven Blier:
There were many great nineteenth-century singers who sent audiences into a frenzy. Grown men wept when Rubini sang; women fainted at the sound of Giulia Grisi’s voice. But their art lives on only through anecdotes about their performances and descriptions of their timbre. None of them could inspire a program as far-ranging as tonight’s. For Pauline Viardot’s claim to fame was not merely the ephemeral success of a great artist. She made her mark on history by the music she inspired, the composers she nurtured, the works she premiered, and the music she wrote.

[…]

And she created a substantial repertoire of art songs. Turgenev and George Sand both encouraged Viardot to write music as her singing career was winding down. Pauline never had a great deal of self-confidence as a composer, but she continued to nurture her creative voice in her later years. French art song was just beginning its ascent from its modest origins, the parlor ballad style known as the “romance.” In Viardot’s songs one can hear the increasing complexity of the piano writing, lovely turns of harmony, and a surprising range of colors from faux-antique (“Au jardin de mon père”), to Spanish bolero (“Madrid”), to Russian-German Kunstlied (“Das Blümlein”), to full-blown operatic anthem (“Grands oiseaux blancs”). She may not have been an innovator—Pauline was a classicist to the end—but her writing for voice and piano is expert. “A singer wrote this,” smiled Stephanie Blythe as she worked on one of the songs. “Every syllable is set perfectly, every phrase falls right into the voice. What a pleasure it is to sing!”

Song of the Day: October 9

This week's curator Dina Kuznetsova

This week’s curator Dina Kuznetsova

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:

For my final selection I chose a song by John Fullbright, an young American singer-songwriter from Bearden, Oklahoma. His first studio album, From the Ground Up (2012), was nominated for a Grammy Award in the “Best Americana Album” category.

My family discovered John through an NPR show a few years ago, and since then his songs have been my constant companions.

So what do I love? The ease with which John combines folk and blues; the words, which are precise, complex and deeply emotional; and most of all, his musicianship. His live performances give the impression of music being alive at every moment. They create that heady mix of the planned and the improvisatory in which the magic of performance is contained.

Growing up in Russia, I was immersed in the music of singer-songwriters (we called them “bards”) who at their best were distinguished poets and people giving voice to the complexities of life, and whose music often became the voice of underground political opposition. After coming to the US, I added to this my love of the American folk tradition.
It would be hard for me to pick a favorite song by John Fullbright, as I dearly love nearly everything on his albums, From the Ground Up and Songs. But faced with a choice…, here is a song I probably blast in my car the most frequently:
“Satan and Saint Paul” (live version).

https://youtu.be/–5vUvL5W5E

Song of the Day: October 8

This week's curator Dina Kuznetsova

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 happiest musical hours were spent in college, listening to the jazz greats in the wee hours of the morning. They were giants, and I love them all: Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, each one with her own unique vocal delivery and a genius for the interplay between words and rhythm, for making love to a melody anew every time, and for making listeners feel. There is so much any singer can learn by listening, particularly when it comes to absorbing that interplay between improvisation and precision.

And Oh, the voices, their expressive powers; I can sing the praises of them all.

But when I think of Sarah Vaughan, I think she could have been (had she wanted) one of the greatest operatic stars, with that mezzo-soprano of hers. The color, the range, the top, the bottom, the middle :))). The vocal technique! It is all magic.

Here is one of Sarah Vaughan’s early TV appearances, in 1951, singing “The Nearness of You” by Hoagy Carmichael, and “You’re Mine, You”, by Chet Baker. The magnificence of her voice is on full display:

Song of the Day: October 7

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:

Claudia Muzio (1889-1936) was a great Italian soprano. Both of her parents were involved in opera (father, a stage director, mother, a chorus singer), and Muzio grew up in the theater wings. She went on to have a distinguished career in lyric and dramatic Italian repertoire, performing extensively across Europe, South America and the United States. Muzio’s equally famous colleague, tenor Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, descibed hers as a “unique voice made of tears and sighs and restrained interior fire.”

I am just very happy she recorded, because her voice and emotional delivery “get to me” on the deepest level. The color of the voice works its magic, but it is the interpretation that makes me go back and listen over and over again.  Muzio uses words to convey pathos, and yet never crosses the line into overdrama.  It is also somehow a wise voice, a voice whose owner has felt and thought and lived through much.

When I was looking for Muzio’s recordings on youtube, I was glad to see that the great American soprano Aprile Millo features her as her favorite on her personal youtube page.  80 years have passed since Muzio’s last recording, and yet her voice still has the power to move hearts.

Though Muzio was primarily a tragedienne, my first selection shows her in a lighthearted mood, in a song by Leo Delibes, “Les Filles de Cadix.”  Many a famous soprano has performed it, as it is a great soprano showpiece.

I went to Spain for the first time this summer, and we visited Cadiz just for an afternoon. Walking its weather-beaten and yet charming streets, I played Muzio’s recording of the song in my mind and imagined the port of Cadiz in the 19th century. As the song describes, it’s Sunday, a Holiday, “the bullfight is just over, and three lads and three young women dance a bolero”…  Here is the complete translation.   I love how Muzio laughs in the refrain; how she keeps it vocal yet natural, how her voice glides down on the last laughing note, especially in the second verse, conveying flirtatiousness that is informal, street-wise and yet delicate.

And here is Muzio in all her dramatic glory in “Ombra di Nube” by Licinio Refice, written specifically for her the same year it was recorded, in 1935. This recording is uploaded by Aprile Millo, and is accompanied by a great discussion.

I find it very hard to stop; I want to post every recording Muzio has ever made, art song and opera…

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:

Song of the Day: October 5

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:

It gave me acute pleasure to read and listen to the blog. It seems that people who love art song share similar obsessions, which do not have a genre boundary. From jazz singers to Sondheim, from Lorraine Hunt Lieberson to the Barry sisters, to…nearly anything and everything.
 
There is so much repertoire that I love that choosing five entries proved a difficult task, but for my first entry I dip into a childhood memory. My selection will be a song by Petr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, “Not a Word, My Friend” (op.6, #2, written in 1869). I’ve sung Tchaikovsky’s operas and songs, and they hold some of my fondest professional memories, but this song I did not sing (or at least have not yet sung…).  It belongs to my Grandmother, a constant and beloved and yet a mysterious presence in my childhood. She was from an educated family, with unrealized but deeply felt artistic sensibilities. Some of her family members perished in the Gulag; she lived through World War II, and suffered innumerable losses at which I can only guess.
 
“Play this,” my grandmother once announced, pulling out a thin sheet of paper and putting it in front of me. I started to read: “Not a word, my friend, not a sound, We will be silent together, for silent are weeping willows that lean over the tombstone…” I played the melody—short, repetitive phrases; the melody did not seem to develop…
 
At my twelve or so years, I was not impressed. I wanted DRAMA in sad songs, a sweep, an outcry, much like in Liza’s arias in Queen of Spades. So I put it aside. After that, I heard my Grandmother murmuring the melody to herself. And it stayed with me—that was the song my Grandmother loved. Now, decades later, I try to imagine what the song meant to her, and it is a poignant memory.
 

Translation: (words by Alexei Plesheev)
Not a word, my friend, not a sound,
We will be silent,
For silent are the weeping willows
That lean over a tombstone.
They bend and read
In your tired heart
That there had been days of shining happiness,
That happiness is no more.
Not a word, my friend, not a sound,
We will be silent,
For silent are the weeping willows
That lean over a tombstone.

 

Georg Ots (1920-1975), Estonian baritone, was a huge celebrity in the Soviet Union. He sang classical repertoire in major opera houses, but was propelled to wide fame when he starred in a 1958 Soviet movie “Mister X”, based on The Circus Princess, an operetta by Hungarian composer Emmerich Kálmán.
Here Georg Ots singing Tchaikovsky at a live concert in 1962.
https://youtu.be/HRY6Ri52a18

 

Some bonus tracks:
The second version of Tchaikovsky’s song, by the legendary Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, live from 1964 concert, with Mstislav Rostropovich on the piano.
https://youtu.be/7HwXHe5d-WA

 

Georg Ots as mysterious and dashing “Mister X”, a nobleman who abandons the aristocratic life and becomes a circus acrobat.

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