At the turn of the century, political unrest and a new desire (and ability) to travel the world led many classical composers to call America their new home. One such political event was the Russian Revolution, which forced Sergei Rachmaninoff to flee to America around 1918. Though he longed for his home country, he earned great success in front of American audiences. Most of his fame (and money) came from his performing and conducting concerts in the 20+ years immediately following his arrival in the country, which allowed him time to complete only a handful of compositions during this period, the only vocal piece being his Three Russian Songs for Chorus (1926). Therefore, these Six Songs for Voice and Piano, Op. 38 are the final lieder he wrote the year before fleeing his home country. Prior to this cessation, Rachmaninoff had composed over 80 songs for voice and piano, making this stark halt in vocal composition poignant and a bit devastating. Dawn Upshaw and Margo Garrett brilliantly perform the subtle nuances and mastery of his compositional style during this time. He adapted the style of his later compositions to fit the demands of his American performing career. The subtleness and style of these lieder are very unique and not heard in much of his later work.
‘Son’ can be translated as either “sleep” or “dream” in Russian – in this poem by Feodor Sologub, the former seems not only evident but sensually and powerfully personified. I have included this song, not just because it happens to be one of my favorites, but also because we’ll be featuring it among many things on The Art of Pleasure, Steve’s collaboration with me and four Wolf Trap singers happening at the Barns at Wolf Trap on May 31 and June 1. Soprano Laura Corina Sanders will perform this with me, and that Steve has entrusted me with this gem makes my soul giddy.
I think you should come see and hear it. As Kathy Kelly once told me, “Of course you’re biased, Joseph, but I’m not sure that makes you wrong.”
“Son” starts at 10:04 into the video. The measure beginning at 11:58 encapsulates why I do what I do. To me, the music here cries out a longing, an utterly naked desire to be seen and known for one’s entire being. I don’t really know else to put it.
I first heard Anita Rachvelishvili with my grandmother in a Met simulcast of Carmen. (I share a love of opera with both my grandmothers, for which I’m eternally grateful.) A year later, I was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed first-year masters student at Juilliard, stumbling around YouTube in search of repertoire, and I found Rachvelishvili’s powerful rendition of this Rachmaninov warhorse, “Ne poy, krasavitsa, pri mne.” Pushkin’s text begins, “Don’t sing, beautiful girl, to me / Your sad songs of Georgia.” (That’s Georgia, the country just south of Russia.) It’s a wrenching depiction of nostalgia that reflects Pushkin’s own exile when he ran afoul of the Russian gentry. His overarching rhetoric is that the misery of separation outweighs the joy of remembrance. I’ll let Rachmaninov’s perfect setting sing for itself.
Notable fact: Pushkin was mixed race. His great-grandfather, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, was a black African. Per Wikipedia: “Kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery, Gannibal was taken to Russia and presented as a gift to Peter the Great, where he was freed, adopted and raised in the Emperor’s court household as his godson.”
“Ne poy, krasavitsa, pri mne” – Rachmaninov/Pushkin
Anita Rachvelishvili, mezzo-soprano
David Aladashvili, piano
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