Few Russian romance collections cast their net as widely as Orchid Classics’ “Sphinx,” which focuses on strange lands and exotic travel. The six composers range from Borodin to Elena Firsova, the songs from 1868 to 1999 with seven world premieres, including two newly discovered Shostakovich songs—for more about these, see the news item on page 69.
The other point of interest is the singer. Hamish McLaren is a countertenor—not the voice for which most of these songs were written and an unusual one in such repertoire, but one that brings a new perspective and often works well.
Borodin only wrote 16 songs; perhaps the epigrammatic “My Songs are Full of Poison” is missing the last sneer of contempt but McLaren and Jorysz move us beautifully through the grief, hope and disappointment of “For the Distant Shores of Your Country.”
By contrast, Taneyev wrote more than sixty songs though most are little known. The Pushkinesque poet Yakov Polonsky’s “A Night in the Scottish Highlands” is a robust stride through the (not very Scottish sounding) mountains, but McLaren brings an archaic uncanniness to Nobel laureate Sully-Prudhomme’s “Stalactites.”
Myaskovsky’s hundred-odd songs are overshadowed by his 27 symphonies though are well worth investigating. These two Balmont settings are premiere recordings, both with an air of gloomy solitude; “The Albatross” wheeling over the dark ocean, and the “Ozymandias”-like “Sphinx” wearily surveying the desert. To both, McLaren’s voice adds a patina of eeriness.
Boris Tchaikovsky is represented by two pairs of songs from the beginning and end of his career. The Lermontov songs (1940), written when he was fifteen, are unsurprisingly tinged with Sovietised late-Romanticism but their transparent unaffected language is typical of the composer. Two songs “From Kipling” are all that he completed of a late cycle for mezzo and viola. “The Distant Amazon” is enjoyably wry and perky but the lighthearted text of “Homer” is given a more melancholy, veiled accompaniment, leaving an ambiguous impression. All four songs appeared on Toccata’s survey of the composer’s song cycles and chamber music TOCC0046. McLaren and violist Green-Buckley generally take more expansive tempi, imparting a dreamier feel.
The prolific Elena Firsova has often set Mandelstam but here we have three premiere recordings, setting others. The “Two Romances to Poems by Boris Pasternak” (1966–67) are “by” the poet-hero of “Dr Zhivago,” then still contentious and bowdlerised in the Soviet Union. Composed for high voice and piano, they suit McLaren very well. He begins “The Wind” with a stunned quality (“I am no more but you live”), working to climax for the storm that rocks the pine trees “into the far distance” before dying back “in longing to find words for you for a lullaby” after which pianist Matthew Jorysz manages a beautiful retreat into the distance. “Twilight” is a similarly compressed drama, every twist and turn expertly illustrated by Firsova. “Winter Elegy” is the disc’s only song written expressly for countertenor, accompanied by string trio. Pushkin’s desire for peace and the simple pleasure of work also hints at a desire for death but he cannot quite bring himself to make it explicit. The lithe interwoven voices of the trio scrupulously reflect the text before whirling up to their highest reaches, into the sky and out of sight.
Lastly (in this review), the songs that will most interest DSCH readers, those by the man himself: the Lermontov songs, the “Spanish Songs” and, potentially most excitingly, two new discoveries.
Where Boris Tchaikovsky prefers to reflect the stanza structure in his settings of Lermontov, Shostakovich produces something, if not Musorgskian, at least on the borders of declamatory recitative. In the only previous recording (DELOS DE 3304, DSCH 18), mezzo Natiliya Biryukova and pianist Yuri Serov reversed the published order, and McLaren follows suit: “Morning in the Caucasus” preceding “Ballad.” Gritskova and Prince on Naxos (also reviewed in this issue) are the first to save the pedantic listener the effort of reprogramming the player. But of course, McLaren’s voice is the major difference and he is as reactive to both text and music as he is throughout the disc.
The “Spanish Songs” are not particularly Shostakovichian but are in the line of Russian Hispanophilia and part of his “folk music” period. Despite mostly being “male” texts, they have been recorded by singers from soprano to bass though mezzo Zara Dolukhanova, who commissioned and premiered them, chose not to. Undemanding and catchily tuneful, they have retained a fingerhold on the repertoire but McLaren is the first countertenor to tackle them and, as with much of this disc, he does so with great sensitivity.
That patriotic “folk music” period, with Shostakovich occasionally invoking the Rus of the Mighty Handful was at its height following the 1948 denunciation. He found economic if not artistic respite in a series of narod-ist biopics, though these were often troubled productions. Having split from Trauberg, Kozintsev refashioned the 19th-century literary critic Vissarion Belinsky as a pioneer Slavophile finding inspiration in the art of the common people. If the centenary of Belinsky’s death in 1948 was the incentive, the film missed the hagiographical deluge and stumbled along, only being released in 1953 in a form that Kozintsev disowned. Now, it seems that the re-edit also discarded some of Shostakovich’s music.
Desdemona’s Romance (Willow Song) sets Ivan Kozlov’s loose translation from Othello, though Shostakovich contemplated various adaptations of the play so perhaps there was also some vestigial relationship to one of those. It’s not exactly 1840s-ish but while it’s hardly avantgarde, some moments of harmonic turbidity in the piano’s solemn tread, above which McLaren floats his pure voice, may have spurred some Zhdanovian frowns.
The setting of Pushkin’s A Pointless Gift, A Chance Gift is probably also a Belinsky discard. This is slightly more conventionally romans-y and it’s hard to imagine it scaring the horses but, for whatever reason, it too was ditched. Nevertheless, both open up our understanding of this problematic project and perhaps further investigation will unearth more cast-offs.
Marina Frolova-Walker’s note sets the songs and the collection in context, and Richard Shaw’s translations of the sung Russian texts sit alongside the Cyrillic. Unfortunately, the biogs don’t include Claudia Fuller or Ben Michaels, who complete the string trio in Firsova’s “Winter Elegy.”
Completists will naturally want this disc for the two newly discovered songs, nice renditions of the others, and the unusual opportunity of hearing them sung by a countertenor. But there is far more to the disc than that. McLaren has a firm voice which is even through the range and is more expressive that some countertenors, who can sound beautiful but slightly detached. The only drawback is an occasionally slightly over-resonant acoustic, but this shouldn’t deter anybody from acquiring this enjoyable disc of (mostly) rarities.
John Leman Riley
Russian pessimism, potently performed by countertenor Hamish McLaren
There was no musical equivalent in Russia of the outpouring of Romantic lieder which occurred in Western Europe, as, inspired by the greatest poets of the day, song after song flowed from the pens of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf and others. But, that does not mean that there was no Russian art-song. If Russian song belonged to the people, then the country’s composers drew upon the folk melodies and dances which expressed the suffering, yearning and the hopes of those vast masses, oppressed for so long. The resulting ‘romances’, frequently settings of the most popular poets of the day, were sung in decorous drawing-rooms, by families gathered around the piano. Often melancholy, perennially lyrical, that nineteenth-century Russian repertoire makes its presence felt during this recital disc by countertenor Hamish McLaren and pianist Matthew Jorysz, the programme of which ventures from the heights of Imperial Russia into rarely frequented terrain from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Indeed, the theme of Sphinx, recently released by Orchid Classics, is ‘distant lands’. This disc appears to be a personal labour of love for McLaren who, after studying History and Early Modern History at St. John’s College Cambridge where he was a choral scholar and lay clerk, undertook further study at the Royal Academy of Music where, taught Russian song by Ludmilla Andrew, he discovered the songs of, among others, Taneyev, Myaskovsky and Elena Firsova, whose music is celebrated here. Further musical archaeology during travels to St Petersburg, Moscow and Irkutsk in Sibera, in the summer of 2018, unearthed treasures such as two previously unrecorded film songs by Shostakovich, which feature on Sphinx.
Hearing McLaren perform in Hampstead Garden Opera’s 2019 production of Partenope, I described his countertenor as ‘strong and sweet-toned’, qualities that are much in evidence here.In fact, his tone is not just ‘sweet’ but very focused and distinctive, and his articulation of the Russian texts of these songs is idiomatically forthright, with the consonants making their mark. There’s a persuasive confidence and dramatic élan, from both McLaren and Jorysz, that underpins the flexible rhythms of Borodin’s well-known romance, ‘My songs are filled with poison’, and McLaren is assertive and accurate in negotiating the registral shifts and chromatic contortions of the vocal line, while maintaining a smooth, silky line. Complementing this brief intensity, ‘For the distant shores of your native country’ – which Borodin composed in 1881, when consumed with grief following the death of Mussorgsky – is more restrained, but no less profound of feeling. Pushkin’s poem tells of the poet-speaker’s separation from his beloved and of her plea that he should join her where the ‘vaulting heaven shines a deep blue’ – a phrase which allows McLaren to demonstrate his impressive registral range, as sorrow transmutes, briefly, to hope. Singer and pianist exploit the harmonic interest of the song, injecting interest into the declamatory vocal line and dark, pulsing quavers of the accompaniment, while conveying the overwhelming numbness of loss.
Sergei Taneyev, student of Tchaikovsky, teacher of Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, and Glière, serves as a bridge between Borodin’s nineteenth-century melodism and Sphinx’s twentieth-century repertoire. Jorysz, his touch crisp and clear no matter how deep he forages, enjoys the pictorial vigour of ‘A night in the Scottish Highlands’ and contributes much to the drama and architecture of the song, while McLaren evokes an almost ecstatic sense of wonder at the planets which burn in the night sky and the mesmerising music which heralds from a nearby castle. There’s more scene- and mood-painting in ‘Stalactites’, in which bitter tears drip from the frozen icicles, a melancholy, hypnotic fall of chilling suffering. Though sombre, McLaren’s vocal line incorporates telling nuance – of dynamics, colour and pulse – and warmth to balance the general funereal ambience. This is beautiful singing, somehow both tragic and uplifting, though at the close the finely tapered diminuendo creates a haunting echo of sobbing in the winter frosts.
There are two songs from Nikolai Myaskovsky’s Twelve Songs by Bal’mont, which set the words of the Symbolist poet, Konstantin Balmont. ‘The Albatross’ rocks with a gentle but haunting lilt, and McLaren captures the eeriness of the bird’s gliding trajectory, blossoming with the bliss of freedom, then subsiding into the calm satisfaction of solitude. The song which gives the disc its title is more lugubrious and Jorysz’s dotted rhythms acquire an accumulating burden of suffering, the toil of the slaves who ‘hammered and suffered endlessly’ to create the silent Sphynx which ‘reigns against the dark night’. McLaren’s description of this ‘enemy of conventional beauty’, ‘blind, mute and terrible’ sends a shiver down the spine.
Boris Tchaikovsky (1925-1996) studied with Shostakovich and is best known for his film scores. The two brief songs which form From Kipling were composed in 1994 and were intended to be part of a longer cycle. ‘Far Off Amazon’ is a toccata-like duet for voice and viola, leaning towards the austere, though here there is a touch of wryness as McLaren uses varied colours and weight to convey the yearning for elusive distant lands, while Nathalie Green-Buckley imbues the viola’s stuttering arpeggio with similar striving and desire. I feel that there’s more irony, though, to be wrought from the dry harmonics of ‘Homer’, which tells of a poet who tells old stories in a fashion sufficiently amusing to hoodwink listeners. Tchaikovsky’s Two Poems by Lermontov (1940) present the composer’s adolescent creativity and are more conventionally lyrical. McLaren enters fearlessly in ‘Autumn’, the purity of his tone capturing the spirit of the fifteen-year-old Tchaikovsky searching for his musical voice. ‘The Pine’ is more sophisticated and the harmonic and metrical shifting sands are beautifully sculpted.
Shostakovich’s Two Romances to Poems by Lermontov Op.84 are similarly tender, a wistful glance back to a Romantic past. McLaren communicates a wonderful vision of light breaking through the ‘night fog’ in ‘Morning in the Causasus’ – there’s a sense of promise and hope, which overflows in rich and sensuous imagery. This is an affecting rendition of a beautiful song. The narrative trajectory of ‘Ballad’, which tells of a maiden who urges a young man to dive into the abyss of the ocean to retrieve her necklace, is well-crafted and compelling, even as the tale unfolds morosely, the piano’s waves lapping lazily then dissipating tragically.
The Spanish Songs Op.100 (1956) are arrangements of Spanish melodies that Shostakovich was given by the contralto Zara Dolukhanova. Though it’s difficult to judge how genuine the composer’s commitment was to these songs, the melodies of which are accompanied by simple piano support, McLaren makes a convincing case for them. ‘Farewell, Granada!’ is full of emotive colours and vocal timbres, tempered by shadows of mourning, while ‘The Little Stars’ trips along with perky mischief. ‘The First Meeting’ is sincere and intense, erupting in fervent, almost wilful outbursts of remembered passion; Jorysz waltzes and dances lightly and spiritedly through the circumambulations of ‘Ronda’. The sweet wistfulness of ‘Dark-Eyed Girl’ drifts into the entrancing, empowering ‘magical dream’ of the Barcarolle (‘Dream’).
In 1950, Shostakovich was working on the film Belinsky (1950), in the first version of which a maiden performs the romance, ‘The Willow’. The scene was subsequently cut, and the song vanished, though it has been possible to establish that ‘The Willow’ was written to a free translation of the song sung by Shakespeare’s Desdemona by the Russian poet Ivan Kozlov (1779-1840). Shostakovich wrote of the song, ‘I composed this romance without posing myself the task of writing it in the style of old romances. I composed it as I would have had the notion to compose such a romance just popped into my head.’ ‘The Willow’ and the similarly discarded ‘A pointless gift, a chance gift’ have now been re-discovered, and it’s a gift to have these first recordings. The former has a touching archaic quality which McLaren exploits to the full, while not neglecting the tints of tragedy and the flowerings of memory; one can almost feel Desdemona’s beating heart, pulsing in Jorysz’s pained but passionate rhythm repetitions. The final image of the wreath-like green willow fades poignantly. ‘A pointless gift’, setting Pushkin, possesses a similar sincerity and focus; it’s easy to lose oneself in these beautiful performances.
Elena Firsova (b.1950) made the UK her home in 1991. Her Two Songs to Poems by Boris Pasternak are stark and direct. ‘The Wind’ is drawn from Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and has a compelling simplicity; ‘Twilight’ is more subtle and delicately poetic. In the latter, McLaren sustains one’s attention through the declamatory delivery of the text, his countertenor crystalline but intense, while Jorysz shapes the poetic imagery with refinement. Another Pushkin setting, Firsova’s Winter Elegy Op.91 for countertenor and string trio, concludes Sphinx. Claudia Fuller (violin) and Ben Michaels (cello) join Green-Buckley in a performance which combines chamber-like interiority with quasi-operatic stature and depth.
Firsova pushes the voice high at the close, a final fraught gesture of the disc’s prevailing Russian pessimism and despair. Perhaps the melancholy of Sphinx is rather too unalleviated, but McLaren offers both those interested in Russian song, and those still to be beguiled, a rich feast.
Sphinx: Hamish McLaren (countertenor), Matthew Jorysz (piano), Nathalie Green-Buckley (viola), Claudia Fuller (violin), Ben Michaels (cello)
Boris Tchaikovsky – ‘The Distant Amazon’, ‘Homer’ (From Kipling); Shostakovich – Two Romances to Poems by Lermontov Op.84: ‘Morning in the Caucasus’, ‘Ballad’; Borodin – ‘My songs are full of poison’, ‘For the distant shores of your native country’; Taneyev – ‘A Night in the Scottish Highlands’ Op.33 No.1 (from Five Romances to poems by Y. Polonsky), ‘Stalactites’ Op.26 No.8 (from Ten Poems from Ellis’ Collection ‘Immortals’); Boris Tchaikovsky – Two Poems by Lermontov: ‘Autumn’, ‘The Pine’; Myaskovsky – The Albatross, Op.2 No.8* (from Twelve Songs by Bal’mont);Shostakovich – ‘Farewell, Granada!’, ‘The Little Stars’, ‘The First Meeting’, ‘Ronda’, ‘Dark-Eyed Girl’, ‘Dream’ (Barcarolle) (from Spanish Songs Op.100), Desdemona’s Romance* (Willow Song), A pointless gift, a chance gift*; Elena Firsova – Two Songs to Poems by Boris Pasternak: ‘The Wind’, ‘Twilight’*; Myaskovsky – ‘The Sphinx’ Op.2 No.11* (from Twelve Songs by Bal’mont); Elena Firsova – Winter Elegy* Op.91
* world premiere recording
Orchid Classics ORC100161 [76:31]
LIMELIGHT MAGAZINE Australia
A rich trove of little-known songs brought to light by a smart young countertenor.
by Clive Paget on 14 June, 2021
Here’s a curious, bold and rather lovely thing: a century-and-a-half survey of Russian art song, featuring five world premiere recordings by Myaskovsky, Shostakovich and Elena Firsova, ad sung by a countertenor no less.
Coming relatively late to the party, art song in Russia took off in the drawing-rooms and salons frequented by the likes of Glinka and The Mighty Handful, much of it lyrical, some of it folksong inflected, and most of it setting the well-chosen words of a catalogue of respected poets from Pushkin onwards. Their champion here is Hamish McLaren, a choral scholar at St. John’s College, Cambridge, who fell in love with Russian culture sufficiently to study the language at school. A student at London’s Royal Academy of Music from 2016 to 2019, Ludmilla Andrew taught him Russian song and the college library introduced him to songs by Taneyev, Myaskovsky, and Firsova. A trip to Russia in 2018 found McLaren combing music shops from St Petersburg to Siberia and carrying off many of the songs recorded here, including two previously unrecorded Shostakovich songs written for films.
Spun around the theme of foreign travel and the mystery of distant lands, McLaren’s program takes Borodin’s 19th-century St. Petersburg as it’s starting point before heading to Moscow with Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915) and Nikolai Myaskovsky (1881-1950), taking in Shostakovich and his student Boris Tchaikovsky (1925-1996), and ending up here and now with Elena Firsova, a post-Soviet composer now living in England.
McLaren possesses one of those rich male alto voices the Anglican tradition seems to nurture so well. Blessed with a rich, burgundy tone, he’s especially powerful in the middle to lower register but possesses easy access to passing top notes. He also has admirable control over a gentle vibrato with which he is able to warm a lyrical line. His diction is excellent, and his Russian certainly convinced this writer. From the opening pair of songs by Boris Tchaikovsky, settings from Kipling’s Just So Stories (in Russian translation), it’s clear he also knows how to use the voice to tell a tale. Accompanied by violist Nathalie Green-Buckley, these two charming, tuneful songs are matched by a memorable later pair of Lermontov settings.
McLaren is equally impressive in the more familiar songs here, gems such as Borodin’s urgent, embittered My Songs are Full of Poison, his touching memorial to the departing soul of Mussorgsky, and Shostakovich’s evocation of Morning in the Caucasus. Matthew Jorysz is the eloquent pianist throughout, a sensitive accompanist who knows when to offer comfortable support and just what to bring out in these expressive scores.
The Taneyev songs are real finds, though his tuneful A Night in the Scottish Highlands sounds more like sunny Spain than frosty Hibernia. McLaren’s plangent tone is perfect at summoning the mysteries of Stalactites, an evocative affair whose accompaniment drips icy tears. Ditto the Myaskovsky songs: Sphinxwith its close, brooding harmonies, and especially the haunting Albatross where McLaren’s silken line is underpinned by a rocking barcarolle.
Shostakovich’s cycle from Spanish songs and texts, given to him is gorgeous (they were given to him by a Russian mezzo-soprano who had heard them sung by a Spanish singer living in Moscow). Thoroughly idiomatic, they are full of Iberian melismatic effects deftly served by Shostakovich’s non-interventionist settings. McLaren enjoys them a great deal, while resisting the temptation to overdo any cod-ethnicity.
Firsova’s three contributions are full of imaginative word settings, her Winter Elegy – a setting of Pushkin accompanied by string trio – skilfully looping the journey back from the here and now to where our journey started in the 19th century.
It’s special to find a collection of little-known songs as strong as this, compellingly programmed and delivered with complete conviction. McLaren clearly identifies with his material, a great deal of which deserves to be better known. Orchid’s recording is perhaps a little close-miked, but don’t let that put you off – here be treasure indeed.
Listen on Apple Music.