Glinka: A Farewell to St Petersburg
Tchaikovsky: A tear trembles; To forget so soon; The fires in the rooms were already out; None but the lonely heart; It was in early spring; The fearful moment; Frenzied nights; Death; We sat together; Whether the day reigns
Ekaterina Semenchuk (mezzo-soprano)
Semyon Skigin (piano)
To the Wigmore Hall for an evening of magnificently old-school vocal performance from Ekaterina Semenchuk. It was very much her evening, rather than that of her pianist, Semyon Skigin, though he had his moments, especially earlier on. Anna Netrebko and her husband, Yusif Eyvazov, were amongst the enthusiastic audience for songs by Glinka and Tchaikovsky, with a series of encores that unleashed operatic tendencies never much veiled, Offenbach’s ‘Ah! quel diner je viens de faire’ (La périchole) and Carmen’s Habanera both revealing excellent French (also heard recently in Paris’s new Troyens), a soulful rendition of one of Dvořák’s Gypsy Songs in between.
That this was to be a recital in the grand manner was apparent from the very first of the twelve songs that make up Glinka’s collection, A Farewell to St Petersburg, ‘Romance from David Riccioi’. Semenchuk’s performance smiled without fashionable lightness, not so far from Verdi – though I find this unpretentious salon music considerably more to my taste. There was stage delivery too, the assumption if not of character than of persona. Skigin conveyed well the dance rhythms of songs such as ‘Bolero’ and ‘Barcarole’, leaving the way clear for Semenchuk’s star quality to engage beyond that. In the former, there were some splendidly darkened colours in her lower range, indicative of what might be achieved on a larger stage, without merely being of it here. A simple yet touching ‘Cavatina’ likewise hinted at that other musical world, whilst the contrasting stanzas of ‘Lullaby’ made almost for a scena in themselves; likewise, in different yet related fashion, the high drama of the ‘Fantasia’. The motoric humour of the preceding ‘Travelling song’ (‘Poputnaya pesnya’) even went so far as to receive an encore. Three songs in succession, ‘A knight’s song’, ‘The lark’, and ‘To Molly’, seemed almost to summarise the collection as a whole: respectively, aptly martial, and on a grand scale; delicate, yet spotlit; and beautifully shaped, with touching sincerity. The final ‘Song of farewell’ rounded things off with a resolve as un-Mahlerian as could be imagined: ‘Der Abschied’ this is not – and was not. This may not be ‘great’ music, but Semenchuk more than held our attention, drawing out of it more than one might ever have expected, without turning it into something that it was not.
‘A tear trembles’, the fourth song from Tchaikovsky’s op.6 collection, registered a different compositional voice entirely – which yet had roots in what had gone before. Semenchuk’s change of gown during the interval suggested something graver, less of the salon – and that is what we heard, her velvet tone and legato just the ticket. A richly wistful ‘To forget so soon’ offered both continuation and individuality, at times once again hinting at the operatic world of Eugene Onegin. The succeeding song, ‘The fires in the rooms were already out’, offered a fine example of building from hushed tones to climax, whilst the well-known ‘None but the lonely heart’, again from Tchaikovsky’s op.6, was relished as if an old favourite brought out by popular demand from the piano stool. (From the stool, though, certainly not off the peg.) ‘It was in early spring’ sounded duly vernal, ‘The fearful moment’ another fine example of opening in the salon and broadening out. Each of these songs brought something different to an enjoyable and revealing reictal, ‘Whether the day reigns’, op.47 no.6, an exultant, even grandiloquent finale.