Review: ‘TSVETAEVA’ by the Russian Chamber Art Society

A three-part vocal cycle on the poems of Marina Tsvetaeva and Osip Mandelstam.

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The Russian Chamber Art Society (RCAS) has been bringing Russian chamber music of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to Washington audiences for more than a decade, so its decision to expand its focus to the work of a contemporary composer could be met with a mixture of interest and curiosity.

The cast and creative team. Photo courtesy of Vera.
The performers and creative team of ‘Tsvetaeva.’ Photo courtesy of Vera Danchenko-Stern.

That the music was written by one of Russia’s most celebrated living composers and set to the verses of one of its greatest poets, whose voluminous works were written in the early to mid-twentieth century—and that this performance would be a world premiere—made it a decision that was not only comprehensible but well-nigh irresistible. The intuitive and impassioned performances of the four artists who brought Tsvetaeva to us, and the personal and professional connections of the RCAS’s founder and artistic director, pianist Vera Danchenko-Stern, to its composer, whom she got to know when both were students at the Moscow Conservatory, almost made it seem as if it was meant to be.

While their names may be unfamiliar to most Americans, poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) and composer Alexander Zhurbin have achieved a level of renown in Russia virtually unsurpassed in their respective disciplines, a fame that has spread beyond its borders to Russian- and even non-Russian-speaking countries. Tsvetaeva, whose complex, fervently lived yet tragic life ended in suicide (yet not before she published ten volumes of lyric poems; according to Wikipedia, the uncollected lyrics would add at least another), was admired by writers as internationally and intellectually disparate as her countryman, the novelist Boris Pasternak; German poet Rainer Maria Rilke; and the American critic Annie Fitch. She has had a “minor planet” named after her, as well as a stamp issued and a ship named in her honor.

Zhurbin, whose “rock opera” Orpheus and Euridice enjoyed a more than 2,000-performance run (as have some of his other sixteen musicals) and who has scored more than 50 feature films, six operas and three ballets, told arts writer Richard Selden at The Georgetowner that this latest project began when, picking up a small volume of Tsvetaeva’s work in Uzbekistan (the only copy he could find; the ones in Moscow had sold out swiftly), he was so moved that he became “really infatuated with” her, and knew he had to set her words to music.

On Friday night, at the French embassy, the RCAS presented the American premiere of Zhurbin’s Tsvetaeva, a three-part vocal cycle on the poems of Marina Tsvetaeva and Osip Mandelstam: Poet, Love and Marina.  The first and third cycles are comprised of poems written by Tsvetaeva; the second, those written by Tsvetaeva and by her sometime lover, poet Osip Mandelstam, to each other. Zhurbin’s musical influences are clear (his “gurus,” he told Selden, are Leonard Bernstein and Kurt Weill, and his tonal and harmonic progressions and rhythms at times hark back markedly to their works), but he could also be called Russia’s Andrew Lloyd Webber, with distinct inflections of Brahms, Liszt, and Schumann.

The opening cycle was performed with ravishing bravura and musicality and impeccable skill by mezzo-soprano Magdalena Wór, which supported the profound, almost palpable sense of empathy and comprehension with which she imbued each of its nine components.

The first, “If a Voice Was Given You, All the Rest Is Taken,” began with Wór’s rich, sonorous soprano seemingly both accompanied by and pitted against the anxious atonality of Vera Danchenko-Stern’s dexterously swift fingers, contrasting with them musically yet at one with them emotionally. In the end, they, as expressed through Zhurbin’s wrenching music, were united against the experiences of exhaustion and futility described by the title, while remembering those of going “Up, towards the light, anew, blindly and unshaken”—the song’s penultimate line.

“Sending Loved Ones Off On Their Way” was particularly distinguished by Wór’s joyful mien complemented vocally by her effortless aerial leaps, from piercingly high to gutturally low and back again, and her tinglingly articulated Russian. With “An Hour of the Soul” the existential conflict extends to the child—in a hideously sadistic twist of fate Tsvetaeva would lose a daughter to starvation after having placed her in a state orphanage because she couldn’t feed the little girl—and Wór, singing into the notes with steady pressure and increasing volume, drew us into the unbearable gravity and inexorable finality of the situation, her voice climbing higher and higher into discordant clashes with Danchenko-Stern’s piano, whose off-key yet pitch-perfect outbursts matched and supported her technically and emotionally.

“Snow Mounds Yielding” also offered a concordant reading by the two musicians, but here the tale being told, one that contemplates human vulnerability and nature’s knaveries, bore musical echoes of eighteenth-century ballads, with Wór’s voice rich, soft, and beautifully placed, her face expressive, the phrasing sensitive and intelligent. The next song offered reflections upon snow too, but “Snow Flakes Dream” is more a painful acknowledgment of the inevitability of human disillusionment. Here, the deft touch of Danchenko-Stern’s fingers on the upper-register keys conveyed the fragility of snowflakes and the frosty chill of icicles.

Tsvetaeva rallied, though, and Zhurbin gives her scathing asseverations in “There Are Superfluous People” with just the right tonal and metric mix of contempt and despair, a “drift” which Wór caught and most capably conveyed. And yet: “The Day Will Come,” when she is able to embrace her love—and her lover, whose floor-to-ceiling, black-and-white photograph alongside Tsvetaeva’s would replace the colorful one of the Moscow Conservatory that filled the back of the stage in the first half of the program: Osip Mandelstam, who first fell in love with her poems, and she with his. The song, like their relationship, shifts jarringly from lyrical to dissonant, Wór’s lovely, quiet, concluding sostenuto leaving the listener, in the end, with a sense of peace.

In the program’s second section, Love, comprising Zhurbin’s settings of poems written by Tsvetaeva and Mandelstam to each other, Wór was joined by baritone Timothy Mix and pianist Genadi Zagor (who had collegially turned pages for Danchenko-Stern, as she did now for him). While “More Tender Than Tender” starts as a paean to a beloved, it is soon caught in the undertow of “the inevitable,” the “fingers of your hand which stay warm” and the “quiet sound of your speeches” dimmed by “sorrow” and “the distant look of your eyes,” the latter perceptions reflected in the music’s atonality. “We Cross the Squares,” a fiery ode to passion and rebellion, was sung with a poised defiance by Wór and Mix, who portrayed the poem’s complex emotions with nuanced animation.

The somewhat deceptively innocuous title of “We Were Driving Down Sparrow Hill” combines reflections on a “familiar little church” and “the smell of baking bread” with recollections of when “the sleigh fell into black pits, into black bumps,” and “people came home from a celebration/Thin muzhiks, vicious peasant women, shifting from foot to foot, in front of the gates.” Wór and Mix delivered the disturbing tale with narrative ease and vocal assurance.

“As in a Descant of a Girlish Choir” (verse by Mandelstam) and “You Throw Back Your Head” (verse by Tsvetaeva) were sung as a duet. As Selden tells us in the program notes: “According to Nadezhda Mandelstam, who met her future husband three years [after the second poem was written], ‘If there’s a mention of eyelashes’ ”—as there is in that poem, which includes the line, And whose attentive hands have touched your eyelashes, beautiful boy—‘then it’s about Osip.’ ”

The two voices complemented each other well, and made the two poets’ mutual affection and regard warmly inviting, Tsvetaeva’s tinged with a youthful infatuation and teasing, then with pained resignation at his imminent departure, and Mandelstam’s with awe at Moscow’s architectural wonders. (The refrain was stylistically different from the songs, and had a familiar melodic turn that I couldn’t quite place—possibly a homage to a composer Zhurbin admires). Wór was especially effective with a concluding top note that was clear, focused, and softly glowing.

With a radical change in tone, the two lovers recount through metaphorical images the silent ravages of their mutual disillusionment, in “Spindle” for baritone (“There’s no way to come together, no way to compromise, and no one gets to run”) and “He Got a Mysterious Illness” for mezzo-soprano (“But he sleeps deeply with eyes closed . . . And does not see how [the] golden-eyed bird / Is sharpening its beak”) in the aptly named “Tristia.” The once vibrant, life-giving passion is now a cold shadow of itself, the lovers’ former adoration, understanding, and compassion remembered and acknowledged but now numbed, and largely replaced not by hate but by a steely refusal to grant the other the liberty to hurt him or her again. Repeating “Spindle” now in unison, their resentment perhaps feeding on itself, Tsvetaeva (Wór) and Mandelstam (Mix) bit off and spat out the words, looking daggers at each other, Zagor’s galloping fingers accompanying them in increasingly frenzied tempo as if the three characters—the piano as much of one as each of the singers—were fused together, and riding to hell.

Of course, all passion cools; and in the first of the final section’s seven songs, “With a Red Brush,” a hybrid meditation on her birth, falling leaves, belltowers, “hot ashberries” and John the Baptist, Tsvetaeva muses with a quiet frankness on what has gone before, and what lies before her. In “Some Made of Clay,” the music rolls like rhythmic waves that surge and crash upon the shore, at times edging into rock opera, while “The Night” was another exhilarating foray into singer-pianist synthesis, Wór and Zagor emotionally charged and musically linked—and equally invested in the dramatically ascending narrative arc. “In My Moscow,” written in the “Russian style” of familiar ballads and patriotic songs, was sung by Wór with anthem-like enthusiasm and pride, bringing minds’-eye images of soldiers marching in Red Square.

Concluding the program were songs of painful regret, of loneliness laced with bitterness and rueful recognition of what was lost, and will not, cannot come again. Contemplating her death; speaking from the grave, in “You Walk, Somewhat Like Myself,” Tsvetaeva turns lighthearted, teasing: “Hey, passerby, I also existed! Hey, passerby, slow your pace! . . . Only don’t stand there sighing, and please do not hang your head. / But rather think of me lightly and afterward, likewise, forget.”

After attending this concert and being drawn into Marina Tsvetaeva’s powerfully compelling poetry by way of Alexander Zhurbin’s deeply empathetic music, informed by a profound historical awareness, psychological astuteness, and poetic sensibility, it is not likely that one would forget her, or him. As the performers departed to rousing and sustained applause, the composer’s wife and son came onstage. Thanking us for attending, the son told us that his father had been planning “for many months” to attend, but could not—a brief video played before the concert had shown a somewhat frail-looking Zhurbin, welcoming us—and had wanted him to be sure to tell us that he writes “real music” for people to enjoy.

He does indeed.

Tsvetaeva: Music by Alexander Zhurbin played Friday, October 12, 2018, at 7:30 p.m. at the Embassy of France / La Maison Française, 4101 Reservoir Road, Washington, DC. For information about the Russian Chamber Art Society, go online.

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