On April 8 the Delphian label will release what it calls “the first complete recording for twenty years of Rachmaninov’s published song output.” This is a three-CD box which is currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com. This recording project was the brainchild of Scottish pianist Iain Burnside, who wrote the notes for the accompanying booklet and assembled seven singers, all of whom are native Russian speakers. These are sopranos Evelina Dobraceva and Ekaterina Siurina, mezzo Justina Gringyte, tenor Danil Shtoda, baritones Andrei Bondarenko and Rodion Pogossov, and bass Alexander Vinogradov.
That “published song output” consists of seven collections:
- Opus 4, six songs completed between 1890 and 1893
- Opus 8, six songs completed in 1893
- Opus 14, twelve songs completed in 1896
- Opus 21, twelve songs completed in 1902
- Opus 26, fifteen songs completed in 1906
- Opus 34, fourteen songs completed in 1912
- Opus 38, six songs completed in 1916
Burnside’s recordings also include two unpublished songs, “Were you Hiccupping?,” completed in 1899, and “Letter to Stanislavsky,” completed in 1908, using the text of an actual letter that Rachmaninoff wrote on October 14 of that year. Burnside’s booklet notes make no mention of any of the other unpublished songs (which are included on the Wikipedia page of Rachmaninoff’s compositions).
With the exception of the final song in the Opus 14 collection (“Vocalise”), this is music that is likely to be unfamiliar most listeners. Fortunately, I happen to be living in a city (San Francisco) that has a conservatory with a diverse student body that always seems eager to explore new domains of repertoire. At the beginning of this year, I happened to hear such a student, who had received her Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Gnessin College of Music in Moscow, although she had been born in Paris. The recital she prepared included selections for Opus 4, 8, 14, and 21. As a point of reference, Rachmaninoff’s Opus 18 piano concerto in C minor (the second) was composed in 1901, the year before the Opus 21 songs.
Rachmaninoff is probably best known for his piano repertoire. Indeed, Rachmaninoff disliked calling his Opus 18 a cello sonata (probably his most familiar piece of chamber music composition) because he did not want listeners to think that the cello part was more important than the piano part. When it came to the songs, however, Rachmaninoff seemed more willing to let the piano withdraw into the role of accompanying instrument. One reason for this may be that he attached great value to the poetry that he was setting and thus did not want to distract the listener from the words.
In this respect it is important that this new release provides a valuable bilingual account of all of those texts (with the Russian printed in the Cyrillic alphabet). Appreciating Rachmaninoff’s songs requires appreciating the poetry, from which one may then discern how those texts influenced his musical expressiveness. This results in some of the most intimate experiences one is likely to encounter through Rachmaninoff’s music. For the most part that intimacy is captured well by the vocalists that Burnside assembled, although the higher register passages occasionally come off as a bit more operatic than seems appropriate for the art song repertoire. On the other hand it is hard to find fault with any of the mellow low-register interpretations.
Taken as a whole, this new collection will probably be a journey of discovery for most listeners; but it is definitely a journey worth taking.