United Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov: Asmik Grigorian (soprano) and Lukas Geniušas (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 9.9.2023. (CC)
Tchaikovsky – Amid the din of the ball, Op.38 No.3; Again, as before, alone, Op.73 No.6; None but the lonely heart, Op.6 No.6; A tear trembles, Op.6 No.4; Romance in F minor, Op.5; Scherzo humoristique, Op.19 No.2; I bless you, forests, Op.47 No.5; Do not ask, Op.57 No.3
Rachmaninov – In the silence of the secret night, Op.4 No.3; Sing not to me, beautiful maiden, Op.4 No.4; Child, thou art as beautiful as a flower, Op.8 No.2; The Dream, Op.8 No.5; Spring waters, Op.14 No.11; Oh, do not grieve, Op.14 No.8; I wait for thee, Op.14 No.1; Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op.32 No.12; Prelude in D-flat, Op.32 No.13; Twilight, Op.21 No.3; How fair this spot, Op.21 No.7; Let us rest, Op.26 No.3; Dissonance, Op.34 No.13
This was a very different recital to Lawrence Brownlee and Carlo Rizzi’s lunchtime at the Wigmore the very same day (review here). From Donizetti song (the launch of Opera Rara’s Donizetti Song Project) we moved to the somewhat more overtly melancholic – some night say downright gloomy – regions of Russian song. Amazingly, this was Asmik Grigorian’s Wigmore debut, and what a fine one it was.
Perhaps Grigorian’s most famous triumph was her Salome in Salzburg (2018) in a somewhat daring staging by Romeo Castellucci. Here she moves to something more intimate: songs with piano. That sense of intimacy was immediately evident in Amid the din of the ball, Tchaikovsky’s setting of Tolstoy in which the protagonist describes her feelings (and yearnings) after a distant encounter at a ball. Grigorian’s control of her voice is impeccable. Phrases stretch beautifully, her breath control is complete. If Geniušas seemed a touch more dutiful than his singer here and in the songs early in the evening, as the recital continued his involvement, without doubt, deepened. Geniušas’s appoggiaturas could have held more import in Again, as before, alone (actually Tchaikovsky’s very last song); Grigorian, however, was in full flight here, the climax superbly prepared and the high point giving us a flavour of this singer at full tilt. The sense of solitary longing here was indeed strong.
One of Tchaikovsky’s most famous songs is None but the lonely heart (words Lev Aleksandrovich Mey, after Goethe). Grigorian’s legato is perfectly smooth; Geniušas’s a touch less so, but mitigating against that was the softest, sweetest final piano entry overlapping with the voice. It seemed from that moment onwards Geniušas was able to match Grigorian expressively.
Certainly the long single melodic line on piano that opens A tear trembles (Tolstoy again) made a fine effect; and how Grigorian lived this song, with a real sense of narration. Two Tchaikovsky piano pieces acted as an interlude, and it was good to hear them both. First, the Romance in F minor, Op.5. We are a world away from the pyrotechnics of the First Piano Concerto; instead, this is music of the salon, albeit a melancholy salon. Geniušas caressed the melody well; a faster section seems to veer towards Schubert in military mode. A flickering Scherzo humoristique sat midway between post-Mendelssohnian lightness and pre-Scriabinesque headiness, its middle section, more harmonically-based, full of mystery. What a great pair of pieces, well performed here.
The final two songs of the first half pit a celebration of Nature against a song of a suffering soul. Grigorian and Geniušas found special magic in the former (I bless you forests) as it rose to majestic, ecstatic heights, and the existential cry of Do not ask. The piano postlude to the final song was playing of near-perfection from Geniušas.
Post-interval, it was all-Rachmaninov. Grigorian and Geniušas’s recent disc of Rachmaninov songs on the Alpha label (ALPHA796) has rightly created a critical stir; heard live she is even more compelling. Take the first song we heard, In the silence of the secret night. Impassioned in its invocation of an absent lover, the live performance was notably more convincing than the Alpha recording (and noticeably faster, too). Geniušas sounded less studied live; Grigorian lived the words more. Worth noting her diction is perfect – every syllable is audible.
One of Rachmaninov’s best-known songs, Sing not to me, beautiful maiden was a dream. Worth noting Geniušas’s work with the sustaining pedal here, so impeccably calibrated, treading the right-foot tight-rope between atmosphere and clarity. The final stanza stopped time, Grigorian’s quasi-recitative whispering musings of a damaged heart. And how beautifully the piano’s bass pulsed underneath the vocal line’s intertwinings with the piano’s treble line. Unforgettable. Translated as Do not sing, my beauty on the Alpha disc, Geniušas is just that little bit less involved there in the piano opening and the tolling bass towards the end makes less of an impression; Grigorian, though, is equally compelling in the opening cry of the first line. Nice, incidentally, that the singer reacted so gracefully to the smattering of applause after this song – surely she intended to move straight into Child, thou are as beautiful as a flower. While the previous song was to Pushkin, this is Aleksey Pleshcheyev’s response to Heine. It is a lovely song (I have to say I just prefer Geniušas on disc here); both recorded and live versions from Grigorian touch the heart like few other singers today.
The song The Dream (again after Heine via Pleshcheyev) finds some typical Rachmaninov tropes in the piano. It is also full of contrasts, a sudden call of two notes like a horn call arresting the flow. How beautifully both negotiated this terrain. The sense of freshness is perhaps inevitably more pronounced live; certainly, Geniušas made more of that arresting gesture than on the disc, to the benefit of the live performance.
Congratulations to Geniušas for negotiating the piano part to Spring Waters so well, and simultaneously remembering that this is a combined effort (the writing is truly virtuoso). It takes a singer like Grigorian to soar over the piano in the way she found here. This music is pure Rachmaninov (the compositional voices of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov are distinct, but rarely so much as here). There were well-deserved cheers at the end from the Wigmore Hall audience.
Geniušas almost sounded like he was improvising at the opening of Oh, do not grieve. The doubling of low soprano voice with piano is most effective in this song, and the music spoke in the hall with the utmost, laden eloquence, a Rothko study in black on black.
The song I wait for thee (to a text by Mariya Davidova) strikes me as one of Rachmaninov’s very finest songs. Multivalent, it is a mini-operatic scena as the lady waits for her lover in torment. Quite a way to close the group of songs, ceding to two Preludes: the famous G-sharp minor, Op.32 No.12, faster than one might expect, volatile, and a performance in which he certainly took risks. It was crowned by the magisterial, more chordal Prelude in D-flat, Op.32 No.13, in a performance of some grandeur.
Thinning her voice to a thread, the final group began with Twilight; the performance is a little fuller vocally than that on the disc, and here it is impossible to give a preference; the disc performance seems to convey the vulnerability of the song’s protagonist so perfectly, and yet the live performance took us to a crepuscular, fairytale land. How fair this spot felt remarkably intimate (the YouTube broadcast only conveys a fraction of the emotion in the hall, you really had to be there) before a Chekhov setting (Let us rest) which concentrates on the lower end of the voice’s register, took us to the far reaches of Rachmaninov’s expressive world. Grigorian embraced the song with her very soul, the low-lying lines poignant rather than uncomfortable. Remarkable.
As was the final, extended song Dissonance (which gives the Alpha disc its title, incidentally). This is a mini dramatic scena. A woman dreams of her past lover even while in the arms of another, and in Yakov Polonsky’s words we experience an internal psychodrama of remarkable potency. Voice and piano are very much equal partners as the tale unfolds, and how perfectly matched they seemed here. Even more compelling than the disc version, this was song performance at its very highest level.
Two encores: Rachmaninov’s He took it all from me, Op.26 No.2 when both musicians instantaneously plunged into the song’s heart, and how perfectly placed Geniušas’s chords articulating the song‘s second section. The only complaint is that there wasn’t more of that particular song. There was more, however, in the composer’s Believe me not, my friend, Op.14 No.7, almost operatic in scope.
In my review of Grigorian’s Covent Garden debut as Jenůfa (review here), I referred to her performance as ‘what must be surely one of the most remarkable Covent Garden debuts of recent years’, a sentiment which transfers over nicely to her Wigmore Hall debut. Her Rusalka was hardly less impressive (review here). Grigorian seems to excel in every aspect of her craft: her performance in the Glagolitic Mass that opened the 2019 Proms was again also notable.
Last time I heard Lukas Geniušas it was in Poznań, in Poland, as part of an all-Bach concert featuring laureates of the Chopin Competition (he was placed second in 2010). It was good to hear him in a different guise.
This present recital is available as a Wigmore Hall broadcast ably presented by Ian Scully and can be seen and heard here. Quite a contrast to the Last Night of the Proms, which was happening simultaneously over in South Ken. I know where I was happiest to be.