Rebeka Voyage Prima Classic

Marina Rebeka (soprano)
Mathieu Pordoy (piano) 
rec. 2021, Latvian Radio Studio, Riga, Latvia
French, Italian, German & Russian texts with English translations.
Prima Classic PRIMA014 [76:26]

For her first piano recital album, Voyage, Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka and her accompanist Mathieu Pordoy perform an intriguing collection of art songs by nine French composers mainly of the late-Romantic period.

Rebeka is a graduate of the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia, Rome and her roster contains predominantly standard Romantic Italian opera. A celebrated Verdian, especially for her Violetta (La traviata), she excels in Rossini, Donizetti and Mozart. An artist in great demand, her upcoming performances include Elena (I vespri siciliani) and Mimì (La bohème) at La Scala and the title role in Norma in Palermo.

In the recording studio Rebeka appears on several releases including four solo albums. Her 2013 album Mozart arias on Warner Classics was well received (review) and in 2017 I enjoyed her 2017 album of dramatic Rossini arias, Amor fatale on BR-Klassik (review). In 2018 Rebeka with her husband sound engineer Edgardo Vertanessian founded their own independent label Prima Classic. For Spirito her debut album on Prima Classic Rebeka chose a programme of Bel Canto arias by Spontini, Donizetti and Bellini (review) which she followed in 2020 with Elle, an album of French opera arias (review).

Rebeka’s new album Voyage contains twenty-three songs of which seven are settings of texts in French, six in Russian, five German and five Italian, including one in a Tuscan dialect. The chosen mix of well-known songs from Saint-Saëns, Duparc and Ravel with a number of rarities notably by Marie Jaëll and Pauline Viardot, is a big attraction for me. I see Rebeka’s Voyage project as an invitation to the listener to step outside the classification of the traditional French mélodie, enabling the songs to be understood from the perspective and essence of the home country of the author of the text. The essay by Étienne Jardin explains how many composers were fascinated by eastern cultures and travelled to both the Middle East and Far East as they became more accessible owing to the completion of the Suez Canal. Some interesting questions are posed by Jardin regarding ‘melodies composed by French people on foreign texts: should they be considered as French melodies? Are they losing their French character? Are they even still melodies or do they become Lieder, songs, or any other form specific to the language used?’

The best-known songs are probably those by French master-composers Saint-Saëns and Ravel – and Duparc, whose reputation rests on a small number of surviving songs. Rebeka clearly relishes Duparc’s depiction in L’invitation au voyage of a man and his lover encountering an imaginary, idyllic dream world. The allure of the Orient in Tristan Klingsor’s Arabian inspired collection of poems greatly appealed to Ravel. The heroine and narrator of The Arabian Nights, inspired Ravel in 1903 to write Shéhérazade a cycle of three songs AsieLa flûte enchantéeand L’indifférent. Rebeka has selected a single song La flûte enchantée in which a slave girl watching over her sleeping master hears the lone sound of her lover’s flute. Klingsor’s text is perfumed with the romantic longing that Rebeka expresses so gloriously.

An inveterate traveller, Saint-Saëns’ love for and attraction to the Middle and Far East, and the French overseas colonies, notably French North Africa, is well known. He wrote mélodies throughout his career, and Rebeka has chosen one of my favourites, Désir de l’Orient (Desire from the Orient) from 1871. An example of the composer setting his own text, this concerns an Arcadian realm and mentions China and the Bosphorus, the strait that separates the continents of Europe and Asia; in it, Rebeka conveys an enchanting sense of the heady atmosphere of the Orient.   

Rebeka has chosen seven rarely encountered songs by Pauline Viardot (1821-1910) and six from Marie Jaëll (1846-1925). Viardot was a famous mezzo-soprano and Jaëll was a virtuoso pianist. Not before time, the music of these two French born women composers is now becoming better known. 

2021, the bicentenary of Viardot’s birth, was marked by a number of celebrations and increased exposure. Viardot was the daughter of Manuel Garcia, a tenor much esteemed by Rossini, and her elder sister Maria Malibran was a renowned mezzo-soprano also associated with Rossini operas. Viardot wrote in excess of one hundred songs and there is an increasing number of recordings of her works. Of those reviewed on MusicWeb, there is the album sung by Marina Comparato (mezzo-soprano) with Serena Rubini (soprano) on Brilliant Classics and another collectionsung by Ina Kancheva (soprano) and Kamelia Kader (mezzo-soprano) on Toccata Classics. In 

addition there is an album sung by Miriam Alexandra (soprano) on Oehms. 

Whilst on tour in Saint Petersburg, Russia, Viardot and her husband met the major literary figure Ivan Turgenev; he greatly admired Viardot and she became his muse. Fluent in Russian, Viardot was able to perform both her own songs and those written by others, becoming a champion of Russian music. Six of the seven Viardot songs here use texts by four Russian writers including Turgenev, and in addition there is the single anonymous Tuscan setting. Especially enjoyable is Ива (The willow) a tender nature song set to Fyodor Tyuchev’s Russian text about the leaves of a willow drooping down over the stream. Set in a high register, it presents Rebeka few problems. Impressive, too, is the final song on the album Заклинание (Invocation), Viardot’s setting of an Alexander Pushkin text. Comfortable with the wide dynamics, Rebeka sings passionately as the tormented hero dreams of seeing his deceased lover rise from her grave. 

Marie Jaëll is a name that I rarely come across. Nevertheless, there is an outstanding and invaluable three CD-book of Jaëll’s works including songs released on Ediciones Singulares (now Bru Zane). Jaëll was born at Steinseltz in the French province of Alsace and after the Franco-Prussian War, Alsace was annexed by Germany. Not surprisingly Jaëll published songs in both French and German. Rêverie is from Orientales (1893) her set of seven French songs, and the other five are on German texts and published as her Fünf Lieder (1880). Most enjoyable is Jaëll’s setting of her own German text Die Vöglein (Little birds). This is a song of shimmering beauty and Rebeka achieves her high notes splendidly. Another setting of Jaëll’s own verse Die Wang’ ist blass (The cheek is pale) is a tender, bitter-sweet song in which Rebeka successfully conveys the pain of lovers being parted. 

Rebeka has clearly worked hard on interpretating the meaning of the texts in all five languages. The strength and weight of her soprano voice and her ability to build emotional intensity are very evident but this can reduce focus in her top range, lessening tone colour. She can certainly create convincing drama which undoubtedly contributes to the success of her opera career but she seems rather less suited to the intimacy of the art-song. Pianist Mathieu Pordoy accompanies Rebeka alertly, and with consistent skill. 

The engineers have provided clear sound which is well balanced between the singer and the piano. This well-presented album contains a helpful booklet essay by Étienne Jardin and valuable sung texts with an English translation. 

Michael Cookson

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Henri Duparc (1848-1933)
01. L’invitation au voyage (An invitation to travel) [4:52]
Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944)
02. Chanson slave (Slavic song) [3:17]
Marie Jaëll (1846-1925)
03. Rêverie (Dream) 4:18
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
04. La Flûte enchantée (The enchanted flute) [3:38]
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
05. Désir de l’Orient (Desire from the Orient) [3:17]
Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937)
06. Chanson indienne (Indian song) [4:02]
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)
07. Les Roses d’Ispahan (The roses of Isfahan) [3:37]
Charles Gounod (1818-1893)
08. Perché piangi? (Why do you cry?) [3:33]
Camille Saint-Saëns
09. La Madonna col bambino (The Madonna with child) [3:57]
10. Alla riva del Tebro (On the shore of the Tiber) [2:55]
Charles Gounod
11. Oh! Dille tu! (Oh! Tell her!) [3:36]
Pauline Viardot (1821-1910)
12. L’innamorata (A woman in love) [1:50]
Marie Jaëll
13. Dein (Yours) [3:00]
14. Der Sturm (The storm) [5:24]
15. Die Vöglein (Little birds) [3:50]
16. Ewige Liebe (Eternal love) [1:36]
17. Die Wang’ ist blass (The cheek is pale) [5:33]
Pauline Viardot
18. Синица (The chickadee) [1:56]
19. Ива (The willow) [1:32]
20. Серенада (Serenade) [1:57]
21. Цветок (The flower) [3:08]
22. Шёпот, робкое дыханье (Whisper, timid breathing…) [1:44]
23. Заклинание (Invocation) [3:41]