Natalya Romaniw – Arion: Voyage of a Slavic Soul

He convinced his captors to allow him to sing one last time, put on his
minstrels’ finery, took his cithara and placed himself on the ship’s prow.
Invoking the gods in inspired song, he beguiled both the sailors and the
creatures of the sea. He cast himself into the churning waters, whereupon
he was rescued by a dolphin who bore him through the Aegean waters safely
to the shore.

Natalya Romaniw’s ‘journey’ on this, her first, recording is similarly
magical and inspired. Arion: Voyage of a Slavic Soul takes the
listener through songs by two generations of Slavic composers,
Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov representing Russia, and
Dvo?·k, Jan·?ek and Nov·k supplying a Czechoslovakian complement. This
idiom is one in which the Welsh soprano excels. In 2016 she followed an
acclaimed performance as Lisa in


The Queen of Spades


at Investec Opera Holland Park in June with a stunning interpretation of
the role of Tatiana in Garsington Opera’s production of


Eugene Onegin


in August. Since then we have enjoyed her


Jen?fa


at Grange Park Opera (2017), and both


Iolanta


at OHP and a brilliant Ma?enka in


The Bartered Bride


at Garsington last summer. She was to return to the latter festival this
year, making her role debut as the eponymous water sprite in Dvo?·k’s Rusalka, a production which has now sadly fallen victim to the
worldwide closure of opera houses and festivals – as did the run of


Madama Butterfly


at English National Opera where her performance as Cio-Cio-San was highly
praised.

But, for those deprived of the pleasure of hearing Romaniw sing live this
summer this disc, on the Orchid Classics label, is fine recompense. As she
explained when we met

in 2017

, her earliest musical memories are of her Ukrainian grandfather, to whom
she owes her surname, teaching himself to play the accordion and
entertaining his granddaughter with Ukrainian songs. That music must have
sunk deep into her spirit for, accompanied by pianist Lada Valeöov·, she
sings the songs on this disc with a persuasive understanding of the
inextricable union of the musical phrasing and the rhythm and sound of the
language, demonstrating an impressive mastery of the Russian and Czech
texts.

The disc begins with three songs by Rimsky-Korsakov. ‘Softly the soul flew
up to heaven’ packs much and varied emotion into its three minutes;
Romaniw’s soprano ripples with colour and the crafting of the song’s
‘drama’ shows considerable discernment. ‘The nymph’, with its spacious
accompaniment and sparkling flourishes, is beguilingly tender, the final
vocal phrase impressively sustained and shaped. Tchaikovsky is also
represented by a trio of songs. Romaniw is untroubled by the low-lying
register of ‘Gentle stars were shining upon us’. ‘Can it be day?’ is
operatic in stature, commencing with an eloquent and free piano
introduction and culminating in a tumultuous postlude. There is persuasive
momentum, but the text is never sacrificed to the rhythm. ‘Why?’ begins in
gentler fashion but grows in intensity; Romaniw’s final question, “Oh, tell
me why, having left me/ You’ve forgotten me so soon?”, is wonderfully
controlled and leaves Valeöov· to offer the answers in a consoling piano
postlude.

In between the Russian songs lie Dvo?·k’s Op.83 Love Songs.
Romaniw really gets ‘inside’ these eight songs singing with great character
and feeling. The sombre reflections of ‘So many a heart is as though dead’
sink low with terrific emotional intensity, but Romaniw lightens and
relaxes for the final phrase, when the heart that was dead “transforms
itself into a paradise/ and sings the old tale”. The renditions of the
simple folk-like ‘Around the house now I stagger’ and the more complex
art-song ‘I know, with sweet hope’ are characteristic of Romaniw’s and
Valeöov·’s careful attention to detail and their well-measured judgement:
there’s not a musical, textual or dynamic nuance that has not been
thoughtfully considered or is not precisely and convincingly executed.
Tenderness characterises ‘Over the landscape a light slumber reigns’ while
the moods of ‘In the woods by the stream’ are more diverse and turbulent.
The large leaps in the vocal line of ‘In that sweet power of your eyes’ are
executed with astonishing accuracy and cleanness, conveying the tension
between life and death, denial and fulfilment in the poetic text. The final
song, ‘O dear, matchless soul’, is magical: a masterclass in refined
art-song interpretation and performance.

The second half of the disc presents songs by the following generation of
Slavic composers, for although Jan·?ek was born not long after Dvo?·k and
Smetana, he did not find his own musical voice until the latter decades of
his life. While working as a teacher at the Old Brno Gymnasium, Jan·?ek was
invited by his colleague and fellow composer, Frantisek Bartoö, on a
song-collecting expedition in Moravia. Married life was difficult, his son
had succumbed to scarlet fever, and Jan·?ek must have welcomed the
distraction from such strife and the opportunity to return to the land of
his childhood. He and Bartoö noted hundreds of songs (they inspired Jan·?ek
‘speech-melody’ theories) and published a huge collection of 2057 songs and
dances between 1899-1901. A series of folksong arrangements followed,
including Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs in 1908, from which the
four songs presented here are drawn.

The songs are brief and the piano textures sparse. In ‘Love’, Romaniw sings
with a lovely frankness and clarity. ‘Constancy’, with its rapid chord
repetitions, dancing syncopations and right-hand melodic flourishes has
propulsive urgency, finishing with a piano ‘stamp of the foot’, as the
young lovers vow never to let their parents drive them apart. Valeöov·
enjoys the playfulness of ‘Musicians’ and shows great artistry in
‘Rosemary’ as the piano curls in and around the voice. In the latter,
Romaniw builds skilfully through the brief strophic stanzas conveying the
suppressed passion felt by the young girl who pleads with the lad who
visits to ask her parents for her hand in marriage.

In the first of the Rachmaninov songs, ‘Oh never sing to me again’, there
is a lovely rubato in the melody of piano introduction, conveying a wistful
sadness, but the song grows in intensity towards the climactic image of the
‘maiden far away’, and Romaniw sings with full-throated relish before
subsiding with absolute control of the dynamics and phrasing. Her rhythmic
precision and the focus of phrase beginnings and endings is impressive too.
I feel that the simplicity of the pentatonic modality of ‘The Harvest of
Sorrow’ doesn’t quite come across; in a rare misjudgement, both Romaniw and
Valeöov· seek a little too much emotional intensity. ‘How fair this spot’
is wonderfully gentle, though, and if Romaniw doesn’t essay a floating
pianissimo for the top B that commences the final phrase, “And you, my
dream”, then the clarity and shine of her high soprano conveys a fitting
rapture. ‘Spring Waters’ ripples with feeling and the vocal ascents are
tremendously centred, while the title song, ‘Arion’, draws fine
story-telling from both performers.

The real revelation for me is the music of VÌt?zslav Nov·k (1870-1949),
whose early Op.8 songs, The Fairytale of the Heart (1896),
conclude the disc. Like his contemporary Josef Suk, Nov·k studied with
Dvo?·k at the Prague Conservatory; subsequently, he would strike out on his
own path, influenced particularly by both musical impressionism and his
interest in Moravian folk song. While these songs do exhibit the influence
of his teacher there is also evidence of a distinctive harmonic voice.
Inspired by his platonic love for one Josefa Jav?rkov·, during a period
when he visited Moravia, they strike a melancholy tone.

One of Romaniw’s real strengths in these songs is the fullness and security
of her middle voice, for many lie mainly in this register or below. She
captures the weight of yearning felt by the poet-speaker who sings, “How
very long life feels when lived only in longing”, at the end of ‘Melancholy
song’ and pronounces the text clearly while retaining the legato of the
simple melodic line. Her breath control is superb, though occasionally I’d
have liked less vibrato when the vocal line rises as I feel that the song,
since the mood is so focused, requires an even colour. ‘Is it not a dream?’
is alone in venturing more consistently above the stave and Romaniw’s
shifts of register are brilliantly managed, as is the tempo which pushes
forward, propelled by the piano’s rising arpeggio accompaniment – when the
poet-speaker reflects on the embraces, kisses and beating hearts shared
with a loved one during a past encounter – then becomes more flexible in
the third stanza, the accompaniment now more transparent, with the
resignation, “everything has passed now with merciless time”. Valeöov· uses
the chromatic nuances in the piano’s afterword here to communicate the
bittersweetness of reliving such memories. At the close, Romaniw’s
unaccompanied repetition, “Was it not a dream?”, diminishes with beautiful
gradation.

‘Autumn mood’ is more stormy and its restlessness is not resolved at the
terse close. In ‘When the day ends’, the clearness of Romaniw’s legato line
is complemented by the dark weight of the piano’s chordal descents,
perfectly evoking the poem’s oscillations between passion and pain. The
third song, ‘Evening’, is, for me, the most beautiful. Low, caressing piano
chords establish a tranquility which is sustained throughout. Romaniw
employs a more gentle vibrato here, which establishes a wonderful sense of
peace and calm, and which makes the expansion that comes with the final
avowal, “I bring in these tiniest of flowers,/ The greatest depths of my
love”, even more compelling. Breathing, dynamics and colour are all
superbly controlled. Despite the prevailing melancholy tint, listening to
this song, indeed the whole disc, one might almost believe – during these
troubling times – that all is right with the world.

Claire Seymour


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