This delightful album brings together original songs and arrangements by the unjustly neglected Spanish composer Pauline Viardot (1840 – 1910). For those unfamiliar with her music, this album is the perfect introduction with winning performances by the Bulgarian soprano Ina Kancheva, ably accompanied on the piano by Ludmil Angelov.
Viardot was the Maria Callas of her day, a wildly popular operatic diva noted for her vocal agility, her large range spanning three octaves, and her radiant personality. She counted among her friends many of the leading composers and artists of the day including Berlioz, Chopin, Gounod, Liszt, Meyerbeer, Saint-Saëns and Wagner. Schumann dedicated his Liederkreis op 24 to her and Berlioz praised her as “one of the greatest artists in the history of music”. On one occasion at her home she even sight-read the part of Isolde from the second act of Tristan und Isolde just to prove that it could be sung (with Wagner, no less, singing the role of Tristan).
As a composer, Viardot carefully crafted over 100 songs, six operettas and stage works, and music for piano and violin but she was modest about her accomplishments. Saint-Saëns however cited her “impeccable technique” and was enamoured of her songs. Viardot was also a sought after and respected teacher and many of the songs were written for her students or for her extraordinary voice and contain many challenges in dynamics and range, in keeping with the style of the day.
Perhaps Viardot’s best known pieces are her masterly arrangements of 12 Chopin Mazurkas, published in two volumes and performed here in their entirety. These were popular in her lifetime and often featured as encore pieces. Chopin thought highly of these arrangements and accompanied her in public performances including a concert at Covent Garden in 1848, after which one critic praised her “marvellous exhibition in skill in fioriture”. Ina Kancheva is a fine advocate for these technically demanding pieces which are by turns wistful, nostalgic, joyous and utterly charming.
The revelation in this album comes with the 15 songs written to Russian texts by Pushkin, Turgenev, Fet, Lermontov and others, recorded here for the first time. These instantly likeable pieces range from the broding Invocation, the lilting lullaby Quietly fades the evening light, the unashamedly romantic Stars (with cello accompaniment) to the melancholy Separation. Missing from these songs are the vocal flourishes heard in the Chopin settings but they consistently delight – who could fail to be won over by the mischievous setting of the Pushkin poem Old man, cruel husband, delivered by Kancheva with a brisk, cheerful defiance?
This enchanting music is not just for connoisseurs; with assured performances and a warm, intimate acoustic, these new recordings are a welcome addition to any music lover’s collection.
Rating: 4/5 stars
Pauline Viardot – Songs Ina Kancheva, soprano Kamelia Kader, mezzo-soprano Christo Tanev, cello Ludmil Angelov, piano. Toccata Classics (2016). Recorded July 2014.
There is little doubt that Currentzis has strived to make Mozart’s ‘Da Ponte’ operas sound as fresh as possible. The conductor’s faith in Mozart’s music and its relevance, after all, is evident: ‘Mozart is always contemporary, always modern’.