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Andrei Bondarenko [Photo by Yuri Shevtsov courtesy of Askonas Holt]
22 Nov 2017

OLF: Songs by Tchaikovsky, Anton Rubinstein, Rachmaninov and Georgy Sviridov

Compared to the oft-explored world of German lieder and French chansons, the songs of Russia are unfairly neglected in recordings and in the concert hall. The raw emotion and expansive lyricism present in much of this repertoire was clearly in evidence at the Holywell Music Room for the penultimate day of the celebrated Oxford Lieder Festival.

Oxford Lieder Festival: Songs by Tchaikovsky, Anton Rubinstein, Rachmaninov and Georgy Sviridov

A review by Jack Pepper

Above: Andrei Bondarenko [Photo by Yuri Shevtsov courtesy of Askonas Holt]


The rich and sensuous timbres of Ukrainian baritone Andrei Bondarenko, coupled with the consistently sensitive and elegant piano accompaniment of Gary Matthewman, made this a highly enjoyable recital.

The themes confronting us were heavy; life, death, doomed love and loneliness dominated the programme, with a sprinkling of nature and alcohol for good measure. However, whilst the programme was weighted with songs of melancholy and regret, Bondarenko was never afraid to show a lighter side, presenting a work in each half of the evening that lightened the pensive sound-world of the surrounding works.

The second half of the evening consisted of a dozen Tchaikovsky songs, songs which – despite the fact Tchaikovsky, as the programme acknowledges, looked down on them – form a key part of the Russian song repertoire. Bondarenko expertly conveyed the anguished soul at the core of these works, frequently displaying a powerful higher register that was equally capable of dropping to a delicate piano in the space of a bar; this was clear in Solovej (The Nightingale), where he brilliantly evoked the unjust power of “evil folk” in separating the narrator from his “fair maid”, only to rein in the undeniable force of his voice for the hushed whisperings of “a grave for me”. The interpretation at times lacked the sense of the sinister – the menace, the harshness, the coldness – that the texts conveyed. However, Bondarenko’s warmth worked well for Moj Genij, Moj Angel, Moj Drug (My Genius, My Angel, My Friend), the earliest surviving song by the composer; he dealt admirably with the higher leaps of “my friend” and “you bestow”, with the slightest hint of portamento adding an extra level of expressive power. What seemed most impressive to the audience, however, was the sheer power of Bondarenko’s voice, projecting the louder dynamics with great force and richness. The insistent fortissimo reached towards the end of the vocal line of Otchego (Why?), a setting of Heine, formed a great contrast to the quiet opening verse, whilst Matthewman deftly brought the dynamics back to a delicate softness for the extended piano postlude.

Indeed, Matthewman’s piano accompaniment was consistently elegant and sensitive, never overpowering the baritone nor afraid to raise the dynamics or reinforce a prominent countermelody. The biting dissonances of the major seventh chord in the introduction to Primiren’e (Reconciliation) makes clear Tchaikovsky’s sense of imperfect and pained happiness, taking “solace on the couch of suffering”; the composer’s extensive use of interludes and postludes showcased Matthewman’s soaring lyricism and heartfelt feeling, the richly romantic piano writing ruminating upon the words of the singer. Matthewman’s sensitive presentation of the insistently repeating single note that closes Snova, Kak Prezhde (Again, As Before, Alone) was profoundly moving, the sense of tolling bells not far away.

But melancholic reflection and sweeping lyricism were not the only qualities on display; lightening the heavy atmosphere of introspection was Don Juan’s Serenade, a bravura piece embodying Don’s endless romantic escapades. Despite a consistently rapid tempo, both Bondarenko and Matthewman maintained a superb sense of control, the baritone beautifully broadening the speed momentarily at the line Fight them to the death”, as if to draw our attention to the histrionic force of Don Juan’s words. Similarly, Matthewman’s virtuosity was on full display with Tchaikovsky’s rapid runs, which the pianist captured with an energetic bounce and finesse. The delicate ending – brought about with great control and no slackening of tempo – was enjoyed by all.

The opening half of the evening was formed by a collection of songs by Anton Rubinstein, Rachmaninov and Sviridov; Bondarenko conveyed the wistfulness of much of the texts with well-controlled surges of dynamics, capturing the poets’ swell of feeling, and – notably in Sviridov’s Bogomater v Gorode (Virgin in the City) – he delineated the clear climaxes of each work with a powerful, ringing high note. However, Bondarenko’s consistent warmth may have been enhanced by an occasional reversion to harsher shades to more powerfully capture the anguish of the speaker and the rawness of this emotion. His frequent wistfulness of tone prevented him from, at times, embracing a harsher timbre, something that may have exposed the unattractive realities of the death and loneliness described; this would have further animated Sviridov’s Nevesta (Bride) - in particular the sub-clause “Not for him” in the parenthesis in the fourth verse - creating a greater sense of pain by emphasising its commentary on doomed love. Despite this, and in the same manner of the second half, the programme found an enjoyable contrast in the more light-hearted Ikalos Li Tebe, Natsha? (Did You Hiccup, Natasha?), Rachmaninov’s portrayal of a drinking song which Bondarenko conveyed with a great sense of burlesque and enjoyment, cueing a roar of laughter from an appreciative audience.

Andrei Bondarenko makes his debut at the Royal Opera House in the 2017/18 season, and – judging by the rapturous applause and stamping he received at the close of this enjoyable recital – he will be followed closely by those present that evening. His ringing top notes, rich and hefty timbre, and brilliant control of dynamic surges and sudden hush conveyed the dramatic and expressive power of so many of these songs. Gary Matthewman provided a sensitive and lyrical piano line that was greatly appreciated by all. The intimate environment of the Holywell Music Room was well-suited to the lyrical outpourings of these relatively neglected works. This was a thoroughly enjoyable concert that formed a fitting part of the finale to the rightly-celebrated Oxford Lieder Festival.

Jack Pepper

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