Russian Songs and Romances

In the Kingdom of Roses and Wine, "The mountains of Georgia"
"It was not the wind", Oriental Romance
"The clouds are thinning", "Sing with the birds"

Barcarole, "I love you, dear rose", Venice night
"I remember the wonderful moment...", The Gulf of Finland

Mignona's song, Serenade
Vocalise, "They answered"
"It is lovely here", "Do not sing to me"

Maria Zelenina, soprano
Oleg Petrov, piano

Catalog #S022578CD [DDD]

Program Notes

The sources of the Russian song (romance) are hard to explore. Around 1750 they are to be looked for in the beginnings of music-making in the court and upper-class circles in St. Petersburg. Here we find an entanglement of complex influences. On the one hand the Russian and the Ukrainian song compete with each other. On the other hand, through the emerging opera, especially French opera comique, foreign melodic currents penetrate more and more effectively, and there is a gradual fusion and absorption of the European melody by the Russian song. The first Russian operas of the end of the 18th century allow us to uncover experiments in the cultivation of the song. Shyly imitational at first and differing but little from the folk-song and the secular chant, it gradually acquires its own imprint and is turned into a new and peculiar melodic conglomeration - into the sung romance or the romance-like song with instrumental accompaniment. The sentimental pastoral poetry of this epoch is also a factor in this growth of the "romance" taste. The accompaniment is gradually transformed - from the gusli (small harp-like folk instrument), then the harpsichord, to a harp and piano setting, and finally to a specific, more firm, piano setting.

The most outstanding figure in the domain of the song of the twenties and thirties of the 19th century was Alexander A. Alyabyev (1787 - 1851). As a writer of more than 200 songs, Alyabyev must surely be one of the most prolific among Russian composers. His chief contribution lies in his psychological enrichment of the subject matter, his subtle treatment of the words and his gradual assimilation of the characteristic features of the folk idiom. His first efforts are written in the style of "Russian song" and the sentimental "romance", where, turning to the poetry of Pushkin, Delvig, and Vyazemsky he underlines the charm and simplicity of the words. Typical of these pieces are the graceful melodies, the somewhat unenterprising piano accompaniments, and the "catchiness" of the tunes, which were immensely popular at the time. Indeed, his setting of Delvig's "The Nightingale" was transcribed by Liszt for the piano, and Glinka even wrote a set of piano variations on it, as well as orchestrating the accompaniment. The tune is also used in the slow movement of Alyabyev's Third Quartet.

The romances of Mikhail I. Glinka (1804 - 1857) are a highly important and vital part of his output. Some of them spread very rapidly in the wider circles of the public, played an important role in the shaping of taste, and influenced composers. Their importance lies primarily in their melodies. He combined in them the cantilena of the Russian melodies with that of Western European (chiefly Italian) type. The Europeanization of Russian melodies was coupled in Glinka's romances with a refinement of the accompaniment. Whether it remains a general neutral background for the melody, so as not to disturb its freedom of expression, or interrupts its neutrality, so as to underline the characteristic changes of mood, or plays about within the limits of a characteristic dance rhythm, or comes out together with the voice as a symphonically expressive and descriptive factor - everywhere this accompaniment is a novel attainment, a novel discovery or a harmonious improvement of what has already been achieved, as compared with preceding experiments by other composers.

The romances of Anton G. Rubinstein (1829 - 1894) began to appear in print in the early fifties of the 19th century. Their number is great (about 200) and they are composed to a most motley collection of texts: Heine, Goethe, Loewenstein, Lenau, Pushkin, Turgeniev, Lermontov, Dante, the Countess Polonsky, Nadson, etc. Rubinstein strove, first of all, to attain a broad melody, conveying the general sense and mood of the text, clear, natural and easily apprehended. In this respect he transferred into the Russian literature of the art song a great deal of valuable material and methods of formation, not to speak of his skill of expressing himself freely and directly in a condensed lyrical form.

The deeply personal emotional tone of the songs of Peter I. Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893), which began to appear in 1869, is due first of all to his exceptionally rich lyrical gift, and then to the inherent traits of his nature: his great sensibility and impressiveness, and therefore complete dependence on all sorts of dissonant perceptions of life. Elements of the gypsy song, and, to a very small measure, Ukrainian melodic turns also found their way into his songs. And this material, in turn, underwent the influence of the German song, that of Schumann in particular.

The early romances of Nikolai A. Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 - 1908) are interesting, because one can observe how through various influences (Schumann, Balakirev) the characteristic Rimsky-Korsakov harmonies, a sense of color, a taste for musical landscape, and a quaint orientalism, come to the fore. The breathing of Rimsky-Korsakov's melodies is short. He introduced a certain mosaic-like workmanship in his songs and preferred to go in for detailed and outwardly descriptive tone-painting. Unlike Tchaikovsky he did not aspire to embrace the poetic text and its ideas in one emotional outburst.

The genuineness of spontaneous expression, which was germane to Sergei V. Rachmaninov's (1873 - 1943) temperamental style, came out with the greatest force in his instrumental works. Yet there is also another Rachmaninov - the author of many bright, tender and "calm" romances. The poetical word receives equal rights in his songs. The general rendering of the fundamental mood is combined with a detailed adherence to the emotional tone, rhythm and sound coloring of the words and each line. It is true, in his Vocalise Rachmaninov arrives at a pure vocal melody, rejecting the text completely. However, this phenomenon appears connected specifically with a popular at the time poetical cult of symbolism, which stressed the sound of the word and the thread of words per se, over and above their meaning.


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