Yesterday, for the second time inside a week, I found myself at a musical event celebrating a nation and a nationalism not my own. It’s a rather weird experience (1). The first had been a performance of Dvoràk’s Jakobin, not reviewed here as I was reviewing for Opera Canada, and yesterday was the launch of the CD set Galicians 1; the fourth instalment of the Ukrainian Art Song Project. This latter is the lovechild of British Ukrainian bass-baritone Pavlo Hunka. Indeed it’s almost an obsession. He has tracked down scores for 1000 largely unknown art songs by Ukrainian composers and has plans for them all to be recorded by 2020. The latest bunch are by Galician composers Denys Sichynsky, Stanyslav Liudkevych, Vasyl Barvinsky and Stefania Turkewich. The party line reason for the neglect of this music is, unsurprisingly, persecution under both Tsarist and Soviet regimes. This was mentioned in at least one of the many introductions and speeches of thanks yesterday and provoked a loud “Absolute rubbish!” from the rather scholarly looking gentleman two seats to my right. It does rather look a bit more complicated with composers holding prestigious conservatory posts but eventually falling foul of someone in the apparatus and getting sent to a labour camp for obscure reasons. I don’t think that was unique to Ukrainians.
Anyway, whatever the reason for obscurity, the willingness of the Ukrainian community in Canada to bring these works to light was manifest yesterday. Koerner Hall was close to capacity which is almost unheard of for an art song recital. Everything about the concert and the CD set was lavish. I’ve never seen a programme and press kit of such opulence! I almost felt guilty taking notes on it. Besides Mr. Hunka and his longtime pianist collaborator Albert Krywolt they had roped in Russell Braun, Monica Whicher, and Krisztina Szabó and produced a sort of semi staged show. They had also flown in Stefania Turkewich’s two daughters. No messing about!
The music was quite interesting. The texts were very varied; overtly nationalist to almost nonsense nursery rhymes and the four composers each had a distinct sound. Sichynsky and Liudkevych both wrote in a late Romantic vein which was probably sounding a little old fashioned by the early 20th century (and Liudkevych lived until 1979) which may help explain why it never became fashionable. It’s very workmanlike stuff and there’s lots there for people who like that genre. I particularly liked Liudkevych’s Peace In The World; a very lyrical piece sensitively sung by Russell Braun.
Barvinsky was an Impressionist and certainly in a piece like Song of Songs both piano and vocal lines sound rather like Debussy. This piece got a lovely performance from Krisztina. Stefania Turkewich, besides being the only woman composer featured in the project so far, was to my ear much the most interesting of the composers. She studied with Scchoenberg and knew Berg well and it really shows in the music. Pavlo rather apologetically suggested that this was music the listener has to work harder at listening to but I have to disagree. I’ve been immersed in the Second Vienna School since I was a teenager and I love this stuff. We heard five of her songs, including two little nursery rhymes sung in English. I could happily have listened to a lot more.
You can find out more about the Project and yesterday’s composers and buy the CDs at http://www.ukrainianartsong.ca/
FN1: What feels a bit weird about these “nationalist” events is that one doesn’t have the background as to why some apparently inoffensive text set to music that doesn’t sound radically different from the rest suddenly provokes wild applause and floods of tears from little old ladies. It’s particularly uncomfortable when the “nation” in question is one that is experiencing what Ukraine is right now. Oh, and on the subject of texts, can we please start a campaign for surtitles at recitals. I’m fed up with having to choose between trying to follow printed translations in semi-darkness or actually watching the singers!