On January 24, the New York Festival of Song (NYFOS) began the New Year with a striking program, “Pyotr the Great: The Songs of Tchaikovsky and His Circle,” in conjunction with the New York Philharmonic’s Tchaikovsky festival, “Beloved Friend—Tchaikovsky and His World.” Featured were NYFOS’ brilliant Artistic Director Steven Blier and Associate Director Michael Barrett, at the Steinways, and distinctive and resonant singers Antonina Chehovska, a Ukrainian soprano, and Alexey Lavrov, the Russian baritone. Blier began the evening by pointedly thanking the audience for striking “a blow for culture and fine music.”
While Blier told us that the varied songs, all but one sung in Russian, “emanated from Tchaikovsky’s being,” rather than being strictly autobiographical, they certainly reflected the various facets of the composer’s life and story. The singers and Blier opened with “Passion has cooled,” which proved a nonetheless impassioned duet, with words by Count Aleksei Konstantinovich Tolstoy.
“Do whatever you want, but do not get caught” was, said Blier, the rule for homosexuals in late 19th century Russia, and four songs considered the men in Tchaikovsky’s life. “We were sitting together,” with poetry by Danil Maximovich Ratgauz, sung by Lavrov, started dreamily, but then the speaker cried copiously, and expressed anger that he did not make his feelings known to the other. In Tchaikovsky and Evdokiya Petrovna Rostopchina’s outpouring “It’s painful, it’s sweet!,” Chehovska explored incipient passion, when numerous conflicting emotions arise. In the composer and Tolstoy’s “At the ball,” Levrov quietly limned attraction and yearning, and with Barrett, in the familiar “None but the lonely heart”—set to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s song of Mignon, from “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship,” and translated into Russian by Lev Aleksandrovich Mei—conveyed intense suffering, and sang high notes near the end of the first verse in head tone. In the aria-like “It was in the early spring,” by Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy, Chehovska, assisted by Barrett, gave us, in happy contrast, an onrushing of feeling, replete with Nature imagery to describe the emotions.
A trio of works by Tchaikovsky’s colleagues commenced with “Zuleika”—his Russian-Jewish teacher Anton Grigorevich Rubenstein’s setting of Tchaikovsky’s own Russian translation of Friderich Martin von Bodenstedt’s German poem, based on Mirze Safi Vazeh’s Azerbaijani poem—which was sung by Chehovska, with Barrett, whole-heartedly depicted a satisfying love, and incorporated some cantorial coloratura figures. In Tchaikovsky’s friend Anton Stepanovich Arensky and poet Alexander Prokofieff de Seversky’s “All is quiet in the enchanting night,” the singers offered a fond and awed love duet. Lavrov, with Blier, delivered a passionate outburst in Tchaikovsky’s student Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev’s “Restless heart,” with poem by Nikolai Alekseyevich Nekrasov.
Songs inspired by the women in Tchaikovsky’s life followed. With his gentle “Lullaby,” to Apollon Nikolayevich Maykov’s text, Chehovska and Barrett commemorated the composer’s mother, Alexandra Andreyevna, who died when Tchaikovsky was 14 and whom, according to Blier, he idealized. With a wrenching “Les larmes,” to Augustine Malvina Souville Blanchecotte’s poem, Lavrov and Blier recalled soprano Desirée Artôt, once Tchaikovsky’s fiancée, for whom it was written, and depicted a departing love’s cruelty. In his formidable “Kogda by zhizn domashnim krugom,” Lavrov sang words the composer might have said to Antonina Miliukova, his former student, who became his wife, here assigned to the title figure of “Eugene Onegin,” with Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin’s words, arranged by Konstantin Shilovsky and Tchaikovsky. As Miliukova would not be deterred by Tchaikovsky, telling her what it would be like to be married to him, so did Lavrov’s character try to let Tatiana down easily, but despite his dulcet tone near the end, could scarcely soften the blow. The baritone ended the aria with a piano head tone high F. To remember Nadezhda von Meck, for a dozen years Tchaikovsky’s generous patron and his “beloved friend,” whom, according to her wish, he never met, Chehovska and Barrett proffered youthful, flowing, and pulsating ode “Does the day reign?,” to Aleksey Nikolayevich Apukhtin’s poetry.
Looking at the end of the composer’s days, Chehovska, with Blier, bade a stately farewell to life, in “Forgive,” a sort of “Liebestod,” with low-lying final lines, and text by Nekrasov, and Lavrov sang “A tear trembles,” a similarly dignified swan song, to Tolstoy’s text. Chehovska and Barrett continued in this vein with “Fall asleep,” to Dmitri Sergeyevich Merezhkovsky’s poetry, with Russian liturgical strains in evidence, and Lavrov concluded by tugging the heartstrings with lament “Again, as before, I am alone,” to Ratgauz’s text.
The soprano’s lilting encore, with Barrett, was Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade,” and the baritone’s merrily pattering bis, with Blier, enhanced with fancy dance steps, was Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin’s “Tschaikovsky (and Other Russians),” a tongue-twisting list of celebrated Russian and Polish last names, originally delivered by Danny Kaye in “Lady in the Dark.”
On February 21, at 8 pm, at Merkin Hall, at 129 West 67th Street, NYFOS presents the premiere of a suite of songs from William Bolcom and Mark Campbell’s “Dinner at Eight;” a new song cycle, a NYFOS commission, by Gabriel Kahane; and a revival of Paul Bowles and James Schuyler’s “Picnic Cantata.” Singers will be sopranos Chelsea Morris and Amy Owens, mezzo-sopranos Amanda Lynn Bottoms and Naomi Louisa O’Connell, and baritone Jesse Blumberg. Blier and Barrett again share pianistic duties. Visit www.kaufmanmusiccenter.org for tickets and www.nyfos.org
for further information.