Rachmaninov Tchaikovsk -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]

Neither Rachmaninov’s nor Tchaikovsky’s songs are exactly under recorded, and there are even a couple of complete sets. Rachmaninov’s (review) were set down in the mid-1990s by Chandos and later licenced to Brilliant, Tchaikovsky’s complete songs (review), exist in at least two versions: one Melodiya box with six CDs (now available only as downloads) compiled from various sources, recorded (1962 – 1990); the other a Naxos project recorded around the turn of the last century and available on five separate CDs. Naxos allotted all the songs to one singer, the Russian soprano Ljuba Kazarnovskaya, while Melodiya  employed eighteen different singers. Neither collection can be a wholehearted recommendation. There are hits and misses in both cases. The Rachmaninov set is a safer bet, though not impeccable. Consult the review and my colleague Jonathan Woolf’s review (as per above) before contemplating a purchase. 

There are, however, many other recordings on the market. Unfortunately, Elisabeth Söderström’s recordings of Rachmaninov’s songs with Vladimir Ashkenazy at the piano seem to be available only on a 32-CD box with Rachmaninov’s complete works, which is hardly a likely investment for someone who wants only for songs. On the other hand, her two discs with Tchaikovsky songs with the same pianist can be bought as downloads at affordable prices. The playing time is meagre, but the readings are marvellous. Other favourite recordings of both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov are Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s Philips recordings from the 1990s, and fortunately they are collected in a Decca box with his complete Philips recordings on 11 CDs, which I reviewed very favourably some months ago (review). Many others have also recorded selections of songs by either or both of them, so the choice is wide. 

This leads us to the latest contender, Polish tenor Piotr Beczala. Now in his mid-50s he has been a star in the leading opera houses worldwide since the late 1990s and is featured on many complete operas on CD and DVD; he has also issued several solo recitals on various labels. He has also devoted himself to art songs, including a set of the complete songs by his compatriot Karol Szymanowski. Here, he throws his net wider and indulges wholeheartedly in the songs of Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky. His greatest problem when planning this disc together with his accompanist, the utterly experienced Helmut Deutsch, was deciding which songs to exclude, he loved so many of them. He still managed to squeeze in thirty-one songs with a playing-time of just over eighty minutes. 

From Rachmaninov’s oeuvre, he has picked thirteen songs from the four earliest opus groups, opening with three from Op 21, published in 1902, beginning with They answered followed by the ever-popular Lilacs and the almost as well-known How fair this spot. The year before he had had his breakthrough with his Piano Concerto No 2, and there is in the song something of the same sweetness – some would say sentimentality, but I maintain that it is the same melancholy which permeates so much of his music. Of course, the full moon and empty arms-theme is dangerously close to a saccharine warning – but only just. Anyway, Beczala has both steel and honey at his disposal, and his mellifluous pianissimos are particularly attractive. As an antidote to the plangent quality of much of Rachmaninov’s music, his muscular approach refreshes the atmosphere considerably. 

He chooses to follow this introduction with all the six songs from Op 4, his first published songs, composed between 1890 and 1893, when Rachmaninov was still in his teens. Here we have gems like In the still of the secret night, sung with beautiful legato, and Do not sing, my beauty, where the final lines are caressed with marvellous pianissimo – but the steel mentioned above proves useful to express the intensity of Oh you, my field, and the ecstasy of How long, my friend. From the 12 Romances Op. 14, published in 1896, we get the intensely longing I wait for you and Believe me not, friend, before the Rachmaninov dozen is rounded off with the highly beloved Spring waters, where Helmut Deutsch’s grand piano roars urgently in Spring’s coming!

If there is intensity and strong feeling in the Rachmaninov songs, there is even more of that in the Tchaikovsky section. There is the same atmosphere of melancholy here, only a wee bit more. Beczala certainly wrings the last drop of feeling out of the songs, but he is balanced and stylish; there are no excessive sobs à la Beniamino Gigli but he still sings from his heart and often with an involvement that feels private. Listen to the first two songs, Does the day reign and The gentle stars shone for us to hear what I mean. He mixes early and late songs freely, which also creates a lot of contrasts. For instance, the light-hearted and elegant O Child! Beneath Your Window, also titled Serenade, from the late songs Op 63, is juxtaposed with the intensely increasing Why? from the early group Op 6 and followed by the latter’s opus neighbour None but the lonely heart –  possibly the best-known of all his songs – sung with such beauty. There are other songs as well that find Tchaikovsky in less than brooding mood. The soft and, well, elegant Amid the roaring ball, is one example. At the end of the Tchaikovsky section Beczala places the six songs Op 73, his very last songs and only followed by Symphony No 6. Many Tchaikovsky admirers, including myself, regard these songs as the crown of his vocal writing. They are for some reason heard less often, but are definitely his most personal and gripping. Hvorostovsky sings the first and last of them in the box mentioned above and later recorded the whole set for Ondine (review). It seems that Daniel Rathaus, the poet, spoke to Tchaikovsky in a language that was totally in line with his mood, and both Hvorostovsky and Piotr Beczala  were/are on the same wavelength; their readings are so engaged, so tender-hearted. The final song, Again, as before, alone, is tragic but still warm and very moving, and Beczala sings it with great consideration. 

There follow two encores. First, Tchaikovsky’s To forget so soon, a song without opus number that is a kind of counterpart to Again, as before, alone, composed in 1870 – deeply moving too. The second encore is Rachmaninov’s A dream, from his Opus 8, composed in 1893. The melancholy mood sums up the basic atmosphere of the music of these two composers, and the summary of my impressions of the present disc is as follows: an utterly valuable addition to the growing discography of the songs of Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky with sensitive, deeply considered singing and playing in a world-class performance.

Göran Forsling

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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