It is worth taking note of the people to whom Rachmaninov dedicated his songs. There are friends and relatives; there is a childhood sweetheart; there is his future wife together with at least one mistress; and there are singers. One of the Op 8 songs, ‘Molitva’ (‘A Prayer’, 1893), was written for the dramatic soprano Mariya Deysha-Sionitskaya, presumably as a thank-you for having sung the role of Zemfira in the Bolshoi Theatre premiere of Aleko in the spring of that year. Among the Op 14 songs, two from 1896 are dedicated to Elizaveta Lavrovskaya, the mezzo who first put the idea of Eugene Onegin into Tchaikovsky’s head. In Op 21 (1900, 1902) we find the names of Chaliapin and the lyric soprano Nadezhda Vrubel. Chaliapin reappears in the Op 34 set (1912) along with the tenor Leonid Sobinov, the meaty-role soprano Félia Litvinne and, in the famous Vocalise, the coloratura of Antonina Nezhdanova. Then all six of the Op 38 songs (1916) were composed for the rich, malleable soprano of Nina Koshetz, with whom Rachmaninov almost certainly enjoyed more than merely an artistic understanding.
Bearing in mind that Rachmaninov had such a varied spectrum of vocal talent within his orbit and his imagination, it is all the more appropriate that the songs should be sung, as on this first rate three disc set, by voices in the ranges and of the temperaments and timbres for which they were intended. Chandos, in its three-volume set of the 1990s, spreads the songs across four voices – soprano, contralto, tenor and bass-baritone. An earlier Decca set assigned them all to the soprano Elisabeth Söderström, which in a number of respects had its limitations. This new set deploys seven singers – the sopranos Evelina Dobraceva and Ekaterina Siurina, the mezzo Justina Gringyte, tenor Daniil Shtoda, baritones Andrei Bondarenko and Rodion Pogossov and the bass Alexander Vinogradov – and in so doing gives a much fuller idea of the vocal diversity and specificity that Rachmaninov had in mind. That said, only two of the songs dedicated to Sobinov in Op 34 are actually sung by the tenor here: the rest are taken by female voices.
If quantity is an issue, the Chandos set is more complete than this new one, which nevertheless covers all 71 of the published songs with opus numbers. There are two extras: the musical letter that Rachmaninov wrote in October 1908 to Konstantin Stanislavsky, and the witty ‘Ikalos li tebe, Natasha?’ (‘Were you hiccupping, Natasha?’) that he composed in 1899 while his creative gifts were otherwise dormant, prefacing the song with the comment, ‘No! My muse has not died, dear Natasha [Natalya Satina, his wife-to-be]. I dedicate my new song to you!’ The Chandos discs also include the early, posthumously published songs together with a couple of later, stand-alone items, but there are distinct pluses to this new Delphian set. One of them is unquestionably the pianism of Iain Burnside, who recognises the integral expressive role of the piano in these songs. This can range from the flood of notes in ‘Vesenniye vody’ (‘Spring Waters’), Op 14 No 11, to the intimate way in which the piano twines with the voice in ‘Zdes khorosho’ (‘How peaceful’), Op 21 No 7, exquisitely sung by Siurina with a perfectly placed top B. Burnside has full measure of drama and subtlety throughout this programme.
Siurina is also assigned the six Koshetz songs, Op 38, a set that shows how far Rachmaninov had come stylistically since the echoes of Tchaikovsky in his earliest songs, and she sings them strongly but with lovely mystic touches that point to the poetry’s alliances with Symbolism. Just how her timbre contrasts with that of her colleagues can be appreciated in Op 21, where her ‘Zdes khorosho’ is followed by Gringyte’s glinting, passionate mezzo in ‘Na smert chizhika’ (‘On the Death of a Songbird’, No 8) and Dobraceva’s warmth in ‘Melodiya’ (‘Melody’, No 9). The men, too, excel in matters of characterisation and tonal colour, Vinogradov, Bondarenko and Pogossov perfectly suited in their different ways to the Chaliapin-inspired ‘Sudba’ (‘Fate’), Op 21 No 1, ‘Voskresheniye Lazarya’ (‘The Raising of Lazarus’), Op 34 No 6, and ‘Ty znal evo’ (‘You knew him’), Op 34 No 9. Shtoda can match soaring lyricism with the melancholy of ‘Noch pechalna’ (‘Night is Sorrowful’), Op 26 No 12, though, contrary to the booklet listing, he does not sing the preceding song, ‘Fontan’ (‘The Fountain’): Siurina does. Practically everything, however, rings true in this set, sung gloriously with palpable heart and soul.