Rachmaninov Tchaikovsky Romances Pentatone PTC5186866

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Piotr Beczala (tenor)
Helmut Deutsch (piano)
rec. 2021, Markus-Sittikus-Hall, Salzburg
Transliterations of Russian texts with English translations enclosed
Reviewed as download from press preview
Pentatone PTC5186866 [80]

The art song, usually called a Romance, was a very popular form of composition in pre-revolutionary Russia. It was intended to be performed by amateurs as well as professionals, so song publications were very numerous, as can be seen by the opus numbers listed above, several of which contain twelve songs. R.D. Sylvester’s two indispensable volumes on the complete songs of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov (Indiana University Press, 2002 and 2014) discuss 103 solo songs by the former and 83 by the latter. They both enriched this genre – and to a degree themselves – considerably, but the language barrier perhaps means they are a too little-known aspect of the output of two of the world’s best-loved composers, so a new recording of their Romances by a leading singer with an accompanist celebrated in Lieder is welcome.

The selection is very attractive, not only for presenting some of the best and best-known songs, but also for including one complete publication from each composer: Tchaikovsky’s Six Romances Op.73 and Rachmaninov’s Six Romances Op.4.

Beczala’s booklet note about his first encounter with these songs while studying in his native Poland explains his feeling for them, and his understanding of the idiom. He is best known now in the world’s opera houses, especially in Italian and French roles, but also as Lensky in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, but it is fascinating to hear the qualities he brings to this repertoire, and in such a generous and well-chosen programme. Several songs are technically demanding for the pianist as well as the singer, and Helmut Deutsch, making his Pentatone debut, is very accomplished throughout.

The opening Rachmaninov group of twelve songs is brilliantly sung, showing Beczala’s voice in good condition, and his willingness to sing very softly, as in the third item, “How fair this spot”, where he and Deutsch are close to perfect together in their gentle, lyrical rapture at the beauty of nature. The soft high note at the end is skilfully placed, almost  breathed as much as sung by the tenor. This two minute Romance is an ideal one to sample, showing both artists at their considerable best. 

“Do not sing, oh beauty” (track 7) is one of the best-known of all Rachmaninov’s Romances. The poem by Pushkin is an appeal to cease singing “melodies of Georgia” which recall “the steppe, the night and the moonlight, the features of a maiden, sad and far away.” The song begins with a piano prelude, and the voice starts in recitative style. The sung melisma in the first verse is taken from the prelude and when it returns is given to the piano once more. The phrasing in these exchanges show the close collaboration these musicians have achieved.  The singer must manage both a crescendo to fortissimo for the climax then a pianissimo chromatic descent at the close. Beczala, though, is rather loud from the start, and his ringing climax sounds as if coming from the operatic stage rather than the recital room. He perhaps sees the Romance as a bitter cry of despair, and that might be an acceptable view, but it is more usually sung with nostalgic melancholy rather than desperation. Few moments in the recital are thus afflicted however, and a song like “Morning” (track 5) is more typical in its proportionate use of ardent, powerful tone among a range of colours and dynamics as required by text and music. “How long my friend..” (track 9) is an example where the final loud high note is well prepared and sung. 

“Spring Waters”(track 12) closes this Rachmaninov group, as it often does in recital. The coming of spring is an important trope in Russian literature, signalling release from the grip of winter. The poem by Fyodor Tyutchev tells us that while “The fields are still white with snow” the newly thawed waters “proclaim Spring”. The rushing torrents are heard in the turbulent keyboard writing, with its virtuoso close. One wonders what amateurs made of this, but it clearly holds no terrors for Helmuth Deutsch.

The Tchaikovsky group has all the same performance qualities, if not more so. These songs provided the model for Rachmaninov and other successors, and these, too, can have demanding piano parts – the composer was sceptical about orchestral accompaniment, seeing the Romance genre as a legitimate voice-and-piano art form, not some compromise for the drawing room. He orchestrated just three of his songs, and then only at singers’ requests. In fact the first of this group, “Does the day reign?” has a difficult and extensive keyboard role, essential to its effect, and is one Tchaikovsky did orchestrate, but he never published that transcription. Beczala’s thrilling operatic manner informs the ringing climax once more, and is justified by the text, so tenor and especially the pianist here do justice to one of the composer’s best songs.

“The gentle stars shone for us” (track 14) is a gentler inspiration, benefitting from Beczala’s more confiding manner to draw the listener in, as does the charming lyric “The fires in the room were already out” (track 15). “Serenade” (track 16), is quite often performed, perhaps because it is untypically lively and so brings variety to a recital of Romances. Here, its lightly skipping Allegretto is ideally caught, both singer and pianist bringing a delightful lift to the 6/8 rhythm. “None but the lonely heart” (track 18) is probably the best known of any Russian Romance. It is a Russian version of one of Goethe’s “Mignon Songs” set by many composers, and its long melody is a distinguished one even by the standards of this supreme melodist. Beczala catches its poignant, even passionate, rise and fall. “Amid the roaring ball” (track 23) is another famous song, its theme the dream-like recollection of once falling for a stranger at a ball. The tenor is at his subtle best here, his beautifully intimate soft singing capturing the slow 3/8 mood of enchanted reverie. 

Overall, this is a most valuable addition to the catalogue of recordings of this marvellous repertoire, with a useful booklet note (English only), and a well-balanced recording. For collectors new to this repertoire there are other fine recital discs, many with similar programmes. If the tenor voice is the starting point, then Daniil Shtoda’s disc (EMI 5 74232 2, 2000) has fifteen Romances from these two composers, and eleven by three other Russians. If a soprano is preferred, the recent all-Rachmaninov disc by Asmik Grigorian (Alpha 796, 2022) has been much praised – but for me, supreme in this genre is Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, especially with his two Philips discs. The one recorded in 1990 (423-119-2) combines Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov (including “Do not sing, oh beauty”), while that set down in 1992 (442 536-2) adds Rimsky-Korsakov and one song by Borodin.

Roy Westbrook

Previous review: Göran Forsling (September 2023)

Help us financially by purchasing from

Presto Music
Arkiv Music

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
12 Romances, Op 21, ISR 53 
1 No. 4, They Answered
2 No. 5, Lilacs
3 No. 7, How Fair This Spot
6 Romances, Op 4, ISR 50
4 No. 1, Oh No, I Beg You, Forsake Me Not!
5 No. 2, Morning
6 No. 3, In the Silence of the Secret Night
7 No. 4, Do Not Sing, My Beauty
8 No. 5, Oh You, my Field
9 No. 6, How Long, my Friend
12 Romances, Op 14, ISR 52 
10 No. 1, I Wait for Thee
11 No. 7, Believe Me Not, Friend!
12 No. 11, Spring Waters
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
7 Romances, Op 47, TH 103 
13 No. 6, Does the Day Reign?
12 Romances, Op 60, TH 106 
14 No. 12, The Gentle Stars Shone For Us
6 Romances, Op 63, TH 107 
15 No. 5, The Fires in the Rooms Were Already Out
16 No. 6, O Child! Beneath Your Window
6 Romances, Op 6, TH 93 
17 No. 5, Why?
18 No. 6, None but the Lonely Heart
6 Romances, Op 16, TH 95 
19 No. 5, So What? 
6 Romances & Songs, Op 27, TH 98 
20 No. 1 At Bedtime
6 Romances, Op 28, TH 99 
21 No. 3, What For?
6 Romances, Op 38, TH 101 
22 No. 2, It Was in the Early Spring
23 No. 3, Amid the Roaring Ball
6 Romances, Op 73, TH 109
24 No. 1, We Sat Together
25 No. 2, Night
26 No. 3, In This Moonlit Night
27 No. 4, The Sun Has Set
28 No. 5, Amid Sombre Days
29 No. 6, Again, As Before, Alone
30 To Forget So Soon, TH 94
Sergei Rachmaninoff
6 Romances, Op 8, ISR 51 
31 No. 5, A Dream