PROKOFIEV: The Ugly Duckling. 5 Poems: No. 2, The Little Grey Dress; No. 3, Trust Me; No. 5, The Sorcerer. 5 Poems of Anna Akhmatova. Remember Me!—A Malayan Spell. My Grey Dove is Full of Sorrow. Anyutka. The Chatterbox. Mark, Ye Bright Falcons [The Field of the Dead]. The Rosy Dawn is Coloring the East. Katerina / Margarita Gritskova, mezzo; Maria Prinz, pno / Naxos 8.574030
Although this recording was released in May, somehow I missed it in the New Release Catalog, possibly because I was very tense about the Coronavirus and desperate to get my hair cut. (Sometimes these little stressors in life interfere with your reviewing.) But I’m sorry I did, because this is a very interesting CD on three counts.
First, of course, is the fact that Prokofiev’s songs are rarely if ever heard in concerts, no matter how many recordings may exist of them. Secondly, our singer, Margarita Gritskova, not only has a steady, interesting voice but also crystal-clear diction, both features being rarities nowadays. And thirdly, perhaps most importantly of all, Gritskova is a really interesting interpreter, and this is a quality sadly lacking from even the most famous and highly touted of today’s singers. I ignored the blurb in the booklet about her being “one of the leading singers of her generation” (which means absolutely nothing…which generation do you think she’d be a leading singer of?), or which conductors she has sung with. What captured my eye was that “Nelly Lee sparked Gritskova’s love of chamber music, to which she has devoted special attention ever since.” This explains her attention to musical detail and interpretation.
One other rarity about this CD is that Naxos has included all of the lyrics of all of the songs within, in three languages no less (Russian/Cyrillic, English and German), which easily widens the appeal of this album and, I would think, makes owning the physical disc much more appealing than if they had not.
Another interesting feature about this recital is that all of the songs are presented in chronological order, from 1914’s The Ugly Duckling to Katerina of 1944, with most of them dating from 1916 to 1934. The only song given out of order is Mark Ye, Bright Falcons of 1939, given before 1936’s The Rosy Dawn is Coloring the East. This gives us a chance to hear Prokofiev’s growth as a composer from an era when he was influenced by Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov to his more mature and original style, but even in Trust Me of 1915 one can hear him formulating his own voice, particularly in the oft-complex piano part with its chromatic, shifting harmonic base.
In this respect, then, Prokofiev’s song output is considerably more musically interesting than that of Rachmaninov, despite the fact that the latter wrote many more songs (108 to Prokofiev’s 62). As one follows the lyrics of Nikolai Agnivtsev’s bizarre little poem The Sorcerer, for instance, one notes how brilliantly Prokofiev matched the mood of the words to the mood of the music, clearly the equal of Mussorgsky’s Field Marshal Death in a more modern style. Considering that this disc only runs 66 minutes, I’m a little sad that Gritskova didn’t record all five songs in this cycle.
Listening carefully to the way Gritskova sings these songs, I would go so far as to say that she is an even greater lieder singer than her great predecessor, Irina Arkhipova—and Arkhipova was very good. Fritskova is simply more detailed, more intimate; in many of these songs, such as Remember Me!—A Malayan Spell, you almost get the feeling that she is singing for you alone. It’s almost like comparing the lieder singing of Fischer-Dieskau or Gérard Souzay to German and French recitalists of the 1920s and ‘30s. With the exception of an interloper like Ukrainian basso Alexander Kipnis, most of whose career was in Germany before the Nazis took over, you seldom heard this kind of intimacy combined with intensity from even such excellent singers as Gerhard Hüsch, Heinrich Schlusnus or even Elena Gerhardt, possibly the most interpretively interesting German lieder singer of her time.
Possibly due to her personal love for and commitment to chamber music and lieder, Gritskova has trained herself to have perfect control over every facet of what she does with the voice (as did Kipnis and Souzay). Each note has its own color and timbre, yet you never feel that she is over-accenting the words, and the same goes for her vocal placement. She can easily descend into the mezzo depths, and those notes have a full, rich sound, but once again you don’t feel that she is trying to show off by laying into any portion of her voice. In songs like My Grey Dove is Full of Sorrow or Anyutka, she also accents the words rhythmically in a way that makes the notes “bounce off” the piano line like someone dribbling a basketball in slow motion. And everything she does, every little detail, contributes to the interpretation of the words. It’s almost miraculous listening to such a young singer with this much intelligence.
From start to finish, this is a great album, clearly one of the best of the year to date.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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