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Briefly Noted: Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff Romances

available at Amazon
Rachmaninoff / Tchaikovsky, Romances, Piotr Beczała, Helmut Deutsch

(released on August 25, 2023)
PentaTone PTC 5186 866 | 81'01"
Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff are not composers likely to come up glowing in my estimation. The exceptions to this rule include their songs. The temporal limits of the text to be set helped both composers avoid their usual sin of going on far too long, especially in symphonies and concertos. The late, beloved baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky owned this repertoire, but in his wake, the Polish tenor Piotr Beczała has made a strong case in this new release for a different voice type to swoon and complain of the hardships of Russian life.

Rachmaninoff's overwrought style so suited the poems he chose, such as the tender "Lilacs" and the world-weary "They answered." Beczała draws out the marrow of this sweet suffering, as in the aching rubato of "How Fair This Spot," in which he applies a dulcet, sighing head voice to the high note at the end. That is a standout in this selection of 31 romances by these two giant figures of Russian Romanticism, a series of charming miniatures, only one lasting longer than four minutes.

The nostalgic tone of many of these pieces seems apt for autumn listening. Beczała wields heroic power as well, deployed at climactic moments in Rachmaninoff's "In the silence of the secret night" and in "Do not sing, my beauty," a poem set by countless composers, of which Rachmaninoff's is the most moving. Pianist Helmut Deutsch supports his singer in every way, moving out of his way when necessary and infusing the introductions and postludes with their own poignancy, including in the most demanding accompaniment, that of "Spring Waters."

The Tchaikovsky songs account for more than half of the disc, in spite of standing out less. Most are piecemeal selections from several different sets, with the exception of the six romances of Op. 73, which Beczała and Deutsch recorded in its entirety. In these melancholy songs, Tchaikovsky turned to the poetry of Daniil Rathaus, a 20-something student who sent the composer these poems as an unsolicited submission. These songs certainly touch on the "Ambiguous Speech and Eloquent Silence" that scholar Philip Ross Bullock has noted in his assessment of the "queerness" of Tchaikovsky's songs. This mini-song cycle, the last work Tchaikovsky completed before his death in 1893, also features musical reminiscences of his "Pathétique" symphony.

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