The “Charmes” of Women Composers

A. MAHLER: Die stille Stadt. In meines Vaters Garten. Laue Sommernacht: Am Himmel. Bei dir ist es traut. Ich wandle unter Blumen. C. SCHUMANN: Liebst du um Schönheit. Er ist gekommen. Warum willst du and’re fragen. O Lust, O Lust, vom Berg ein Lied. Geheimes Flüstern hier und dort. VIARDOT-GARCIA: Nixe Binsefuβ. Hai luli. Der Gartner. On Georgian Hills. Two Roses. Golden Glow of the Mountain Peaks. Do Not Sing, My Beauty, To Me. KAPRÁLOVÁ: Navždy. Potkali se včera lide dvá, Až jednoho dne se budeš plat. Ruce / Olena Tokar, sop; Igor Gryshyn, pno / Orchid Classics ORC100154

This disc showcases the talent of Ukrainian soprano Olene Tokar in a program of songs by women composers. The liner notes perpetuate the myth, now long since proven false, that Gustav Mahler forced Alma Schindler to give up composing when she married him. Surviving letters in Mahler’s hand, which surfaced approximately 20 years ago, have shown that this was a lie, one of thousands perpetuated by Alma herself in her memoirs. One of her daughters said that anyone who believes most of what her mother wrote in her memoirs is crazy. Alma was a pathological liar in addition to being one of the most disgusting human beings who ever lived. She had a continuous stream of affairs all through her three marriages, prostituted one of her daughters to a local priest in return for sexual favors, and spread lies about any man who refused to succumb to her seduction. One such permanently damaged the relationship between Wassily Kandinsky, who refused to have sex with her, and Arnold Schoenberg, telling the latter that Kandinsky was an anti-Semite, which was not at all true.

But—and this is clear from listening to them—these specific five songs are the best things she ever wrote, Tokar has a typically bright Slavic voice with a touch of flutter in sustained tones, but it is an essentially attractive voice and she is a very sensitive interpreter. Interestingly the first song, Die stille Stadt, almost sounds like a cross between German and Russian music of the late Romantic era, and there are some very interesting sudden harmonic shifts in it. Igor Gryshyn is an OK pianist, lightweight and not particularly involved in his playing, but he gets by.

Clara Schumann was a solid, professional composer, but neither very original nor very interesting. Her music toodles along in its predictable way. It is light and entertaining yet strangely uninteresting. Tokar does what she can with these songs, which sadly isn’t much. Gryshyn is his usual detached self. O Lust, O Lust is probably the most interesting of them.

Next up is a real musical genius, Pauline Viardot-Garcia. I have written extensively about her work on this blog (click HERE for one such article), and these songs are yet further proof of her excellence as a composer, particularly of songs. Three are in German and four in Russian, and I would defy any listener, in a blindfold test, to tell me that they sound like the work of one composer. Viardot-Garcia was a musical chameleon, and these songs are all outstanding. Nixe Binsefuβ is a perfect example: you absolutely cannot predict where the melodic line is going, yet once you hear it, it makes sense. (Viardot-Garcia also had the habit of playing and singing these songs for visitors without revealing that she had written them; you had to drag it out of her.) Tokar handles the tricky vocal pyrotechnics in this song, including quick trills, extremely well, but each and every song, as usual for Viardot-Garcia, is a little gem in its own way.

We end with the songs of another musical genius, Vitĕzlava Kaprálová, who died at the age of 25. Her songs are more modern, more Bartók-influenced, yet with a lyrical quality entirely her own. Oddly enough, it is in this music that Gryshyn sounds the most interesting as accompanist.

A nice recital, then, with mostly good music on it, nicely if not very deeply sung by a talented soprano who still has some way to go before I would consider her a great artist.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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