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 Dvořák, Janáček and Novák 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 Jenůfa at Grange Park Opera (2017), and both Iolanta at OHP and a brilliant Mařenka 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 Valešová, 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

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 Valešová to offer the answers in a consoling piano postlude.

In between the Russian songs lie Dvořák’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 Valešová’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 Janáček was born not long after Dvořák 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, Janáček was invited by his colleague and fellow composer, Frantisek Bartoš, on a song-collecting expedition in Moravia. Married life was difficult, his son had succumbed to scarlet fever, and Janáček must have welcomed the distraction from such strife and the opportunity to return to the land of his childhood. He and Bartoš noted hundreds of songs (they inspired Janáček ‘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. Valešová 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 aleöov· 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 Vítězslav Novák (1870-1949), whose early Op.8 songs, The Fairytale of the Heart (1896), conclude the disc. Like his contemporary Josef Suk, Novákstudied with Dvořák 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 Javůrková·, 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”. Valešová 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

Arion: Voyage of a Slavic Soul
Natalya Romaniw (soprano), Lada Valešová (piano)