Pianist Iain Burnside introduces his Russian Songs series at Wigmore Hall, which began in September 2018 and continues this Thursday with Justina Gringytė & Dmytro Popov.
This article appears in the Winter edition of Askonas Holt’s magazine The Green Room, which will be published in early December.
Where does your interest in Russian songs come from?
A few years back I was lucky enough to play for the soprano Galina Gorchakova. We did recitals all over – in Europe, America, Japan. That gave me both a wonderful grounding in the central Russian Romance repertoire and a delight in engaging with the fiery Slav temperament. Galina liked minimal rehearsal, which kept me on my toes and made every concert an adventure. Although I can’t speak Russian, I do know Polish – I studied for two years in Warsaw – and that’s made a huge difference in understanding. Just as in German Lieder the same words and concepts keep reappearing, so in Russian song, once your ear is attuned, the vocabulary of star gazing, breast beating and soul searching quickly becomes familiar.
How did your Wigmore Hall series come about?
In the 2014 season I curated a number of afternoon recitals at Wigmore Hall, responding to the success of the complete Rachmaninov songs CDs on the Delphian label. The Hall’s Director, John Gilhooly, then extended a wonderful invitation to collaborate on a wider survey of Romantic Russian repertoire, keeping Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov at the centre, but also exploring less familiar terrain. In the meantime Delphian brought out another boxed set, this time of Nikolai Medtner songs. That project led to new discoveries, which we’re showcasing here. Part of our programming is thematic, exploring particular poets – Pushkin, Burns – or shared passions, like Russian composers’ obsession with Spain. I guess if you lived in 19th century St Petersburg, come February, the thought of Seville must have held many charms. We also go off the beaten track in our choice of composers: Gretchaninov, Cui, Glazunov and Glière aren’t names you meet in song recitals every day of the week.
Among the singers joining you for the series are Olena Tokar, Dmytro Popov, Pavel Kolgatin and Nikolay Didenko. How many singers are there in total, and how does each collaboration work?
There are ten singers in all. John was keen to mix artists familiar to Wigmore audiences with some fresh faces, so there will be a few house debuts, like the brilliant young Georgian soprano Sofia Mchedlishvili. Similarly, I have happy working relationships with most of our singers but I’m making new friends as well. I’ve performed before with both baritones, Rodion Pogossov and Andrey Zhilikhovsky, and love working with them – not just marvellous singers but great characters too, with big performing personalities. I went out to Berlin recently to rehearse with Dmytro Popov, whom I’d never met. He has the most glorious tenor voice, that he can also rein in to a pianissimo that should be magical in the famous Wigmore acoustic.
“For the most part it’s just so much fun to play. And when you’re sharing the stage with big, opulent voices, as is my privilege here, it’s a feeling you can’t beat. I’m driving a Ferrari on an open road, and I can put my foot down. Who could resist?”
How does it feel playing Russian song, compared with, say, German Lieder or French Mélodies?
The pianism is certainly different. Rachmaninov flows under the fingers in a way that’s quite unique. Part of his genius is to make music sound harder than it actually is. Medtner is the exact opposite: a dazzling pianist whose idiosyncrasies make even the simplest sounding romance torture to learn. But the feel at the piano of this Russian repertoire is one of its great joys. For the most part it’s just so much fun to play. And when you’re sharing the stage with big, opulent voices, as is my privilege here, it’s a feeling you can’t beat. I’m driving a Ferrari on an open road, and I can put my foot down. Who could resist?
Saturday 22 September with Olena Tokar, Pavel Kolgatin & Nikolay Didenko
Thursday 29 November with Justina Gringytė & Dmytro Popov
Monday 28 January with Sofia Fomina, Oleksiy Palchykov & Rodion Pogossov
Friday 1 March with Sofia Mchedlishvili & Andrey Zhilikhovsky