Rachmaninov’s songs come from deep in his Russian heritage. Although he was able to develop this art in significant new directions, he was never able to return to it after his exile.
Between 1890, when he was seventeen, and his departure from Russia in 1917, Rachmaninov wrote over eighty songs.
The selection covers virtually the whole of Rachmaninov’s career as a song writer (i.e. the quarter century from 1890) from the first hew he ever wrote, which include ’Again you are bestirred, my heart’, to the time of his departure from Russia at the Revolution in 1917. From that date he wrote no further songs or operas.
The first group of songs sent to be published were some of his best loved. Among them are ’It wasn’t long ago, my friend’, a song of reunion after the partings and absences that haunt so many of his songs, and ’Sing not, o lovely one’, setting Russia’s greatest lyric poet, Pushkin. Op.8 consists of translations from Ukranian and German: No 6 was originally Goethe’s ’O Gott, schau herab’, in which a girl begs forgiveness for the death of a young man from unrequited love.
With the twelve songs of Op 14 there is a striking change in the use of the piano. In ’Spring torrents’ Rachmaninov uses the imagery of the violent Russian spring; whereas the ’Small Island’ a translation of Shelley’s ’The Isle’, is a song of charming simplicity. In ’I await you’ and ’Do not believe me, friend’ the feeling of love and despair is very passionate. These were the last songs he was to write for several years, having been shattered by the disasterous premiere of his First Symphony in 1897. It was not until the sucess of his Second Piano Concerto in 1901 that he returned to song with renewed enthusiasm.
In the twelve songs of Op 21, his experience in his post he had meanwhile taken as assistant conductor with an opera company took root. In particular, the influence of a new friend , the bass Shalyapin, is felt on the dramatic nature of his songs. But this was also a happy time for him and ’How peaceful’ and ’Lilacs’ reflect Rachmaninov’s contentment with life. Yet for fourteen years did he not return to song, until the group of Op. 26 that explores the more sorrowful emotions that came most naturally to him. In his Op 34 there is more inspiration from singers within the company.
Before his exile, he moved away from Romantic poets to the Symbolists who had become a dominant force in Russian literature, a move which became evident in his Op. 38. He had a great interest in words, particularly in their resonance and the implications these had for the music. ’Daisies’ was one of the favourites of all his songs in the final set, together with ’The pied piper’; but also he might have added ’Sleep’ , a song which concentrates much of his art into music delicately balanced between piano and voice as if between sleep and waking.