Ilona: Love songs and arias by Mozart, Strauss, Rachmaninoff and more…
How did you come to choose the repertoire for this CD?
It was a case of wanting to choose songs that I felt would represent me both as a person and as a singer. So rather than just singing the works of one composer, I've chosen a selection of songs that I've come to love from studying and performing over the years. These songs also reflect my life's experiences.
You've chosen works by Italian, Russian, German, French, English and Israeli composers. Why such cultural diversity?
Quite simply, the songs reflect my interest in places and languages and the different peoples and cultures I've encountered during my travels. It all began with my childhood in Russia where my grandmother first encouraged me to develop my musical talents and where I first studied piano. Then when I was 13 my family moved to Israel. What a contrast! From the austerity of Russia at the end of the Communist era, I suddenly experienced all the freedom and vibrancy of Israel. Here I began my studies at the academy, initially as a pianist and then as a singer, which led to another life-changing experience when I sang in a masterclass with Vera Rosza. She encouraged me to come to study at the Royal College of Music in London – the place where I really began my professional career as a singer, and which is now my home.
Do those varied experiences help you in any way as a singer?
Definitely. They've helped to shape my character. It also means that when I'm performing I can draw on a colourful palette of life experiences. I might recall someone I've known personally when I'm creating a specific role. Or I might have passed someone in the street and then try to imagine who they are and what their life is like. All this helps to feed the imagination, which is vital for a singer. The composition is the essential springboard of course, but it's through the performer's imagination that a composer's ideas can come alive. By interpreting those songs I can provide the link between the imagination of the composer and the imagination of the listener.
Stylistically, the songs seem quite varied. How would you sum them up?
They demonstrate my passion for different types of music, from very operatic songs like the arias by Mozart and Puccini to chamber works like the Strauss lieder, and for different periods in music. The songs I've selected go all the way from the Baroque era to music by contemporary composers, including Benjamin Ellin's White night which was written especially for me.
Did such a range of styles present a challenge for you?
Some of the songs are very difficult. For instance, some parts of the Strauss songs are very acrobatic – as a singer you feel as if you're on a high wire exposed in the limelight. On the other hand, the lyrical Italian songs, while ostensibly less technically demanding, call for intense musicality and sensitivity.
The songs are about love in all its many different aspects – is there a personal context here too?
Yes, love in all its many facets colours these songs – from the joy of new romance to the grief of abandonment. Having grown up in a matriarchal family of strong women, I'm especially interested in women's stories and how I can portray them in song, and many of the works here feature female characters. Others are related from a male perspective, for instance, Fauré's Nell, or Vaga luna by Bellini, which adds another dimension and another story-telling challenge for me as a singer.
Could you tell us about some of the stories behind the songs?
Since it is a CD about love, we start with a lovers' argument in Verdi's Stornello (Rhyme) in which a headstrong and passionate woman warns her lover that she too can exhibit all the wayward behaviour of the male. If he looks elsewhere for love then so will she, since constancy is mere madness. And if he decides to leave her, she will not cry, but sing like a nightingale freed from its cage. The music in both the piano accompaniment and the vocal line expresses the confidence and strength of the woman's character, but also captures all her coquettishness, humour and charm.
In Bellini's Vaga luna (Lovely moon, you who shed silvery light), the story is told from a man's point of view and the rejected suitor asks the moon to bear witness to his love. This is a song about fidelity, reflected in the steady piano accompaniment, and presents a contrast with the much flightier Stornello by Verdi. The music is soft and passionate, creating an evanescent, romantic atmosphere, but the lover's yearning is also represented in moments of musical tension within the work.
Then follow three songs by Rachmaninoff (1873–1943). In the first of these, Krysolov (The Pied Piper), the words and music work together to describe the piper's attempts to seduce a shepherdess with his sensual playing. A sense of innocence conjured up by the image of lambs gambolling and the piper's carefree tra-la-la is perhaps in contrast with his real intent. He describes kissing his beloved passionately in the shadows of the trees, and the seductive mood is underlined by the music, which progresses through some unusual harmonies for Rachmaninoff, finally reaching a climax with the words ‘till the morning I will kiss her'.
The second Rachmaninoff song, Zdes khoraosho (How peaceful), is more devotional in nature, portraying an image of earthly bliss in which a couple relax in each other's arms, lying under an ancient pine tree beside the river, while watching the clouds and admiring the flowers. Musically, it is a long breath of legato lines. The song comes to an ecstatic ending with the high note on the words: ‘you are my only dream'. For me, this song is musical perfection – a picture in miniature of love's deepest commitment – and absolutely thrilling.
The third song by Rachmaninoff, U mojego okna (Before my window), is another masterly demonstration of the composer's ability to create a perfect picture – almost photographic in its realism – of emotion in music. Here, we have the erotic nature of love, represented by the blossom of a cherry tree. The lover catches the fragrance of the blossom and its intensity makes his senses reel. This feeling, combined with the call of a bird in a ‘wordless song of love', creates an emotionally charged image. The wordless song itself is ‘sung' by the piano, illustrating Rachmaninoff's skill in bringing the text to life in music.
In Rachmaninoff's final song in this group, Kak mne bolno (How painful), the seductive mood conjured in the first three songs gives way to despair. Rachmaninoff is a master in altering the atmosphere of song, here turning his harmonies into a deep river of sorrow. As winter turns to spring, the subject of this song longs to feel alive once more but her pain is too great. It is a pain that makes her yearn to be old, to forget the joys of life, to be deaf to the sounds of nature, and to be rid of all regret. The initial urgency of the music at the outset, propelled by the rhythm of the chords, loses its momentum when the woman begins to yearn for old age. Rachmaninoff then takes us to the end of her lament in a series of tormented chromaticisms, ending on the word ‘regret'.
The three songs by Strauss (1864 –1949) are part of the series of lieder (Op. 68) composed in 1918 to words by Clemens Brentano (1778 –1842). Written for his wife, like many of his songs, Amor (Cupid) is one of the most acrobatic songs in the soprano repertoire. Requiring a high, virtuosic soprano voice, the song has coloratura passages reaching top Bs and Cs, and allows the singer hardly any time to breathe. It tells of cunning Cupid, who sets his wings on fire in order to attract and seduce a young shepherdess. She comes to his aid, only to have her heart consumed by fire as she does so. The song develops in waves that imitate the fire and the roguish behaviour of Cupid.
Ich wollt'ein Sträußlein binden (I would have made a bouquet)
This song by Strauss is all about falling in love for the first time, capturing the heady mix of ecstasy, melancholy, hope and fear that characterises the experience. The lover wants to fashion a bouquet for the object of his desire, but night falls and he cannot find any flowers. He finally sees a flower and goes to pick it but the flower speaks and begs him not to hurt her. Unable to make a bouquet, the lover finds himself alone and contemplates what might have been.
Säusle,liebeMyrte! (Rustle,dearmyrtle!) The third song in the group by Strauss is a farewell lullaby to a beloved who has died. The music swells in waves of new emotions and ideas, creating an illusion that romance still lives. In contrast, the words peacefully release the deceased lover. Nevertheless, there is a reminder that they will soon be reunited in heaven.
Two French songs by Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) follow. The first one, Nell, means a lot to me as I've known it almost since I started singing. It is another male song, expressing ecstatic love for the woman, Nell. From the first notes, the vocal line is carried by the moto perpetuo arpeggiated figures in the piano accompaniment, the momentum building until the instant when the lover finally pronounces her name.
Le Secret (The Secret) When I first heard this song and read the poem, it moved me to tears as the beauty of the language and the simplicity of the music touched my deepest emotions. The poem, by Armand Silvestre, is a very intimate depiction of love, in which the subject struggles to hide their innermost feelings while at the same time wanting to declare them to the world. The first verse suggests regret at a possible indiscretion with the line ‘I want the morning not to know the name that I told to the night' while the second verse suggests the possibility of opening one's heart with the declaration ‘I want the day to proclaim the love that I hid from the morning'. In the third verse, however, the subject states ‘I want the sunset to forget the secret I told to the day', making the secret feelings safe once more. The references to the morning, day and sunset could be compared with the ritual devotion associated with the ringing of the Angelus bell at regular intervals during the day to call workers to prayer, perhaps hinting at some profound, sacred love.
The next three songs are from the modern era. I have always been fascinated by the way modern composers are able to tackle the tribulations of life and the heavy burden of our history, and translate them into musical language.
Beloi Nochiu (White night) is the fruit of an exciting collaboration with the young British composer and conductor Benjamin Ellin (b. 1980). It is now a part of a cycle of five songs to the words of Anna Ahkmatova (1889-1966), one of my favourite Russian poets. In the song a distraught woman waits for her lover, watching the fields fade in the sunset and imagining his voice, but realising that despite her hope of his return, all is lost.
The composer has said of this work: ‘White Night was written in 2009 for Ilona Domnich. Since conducting her in a previous performance and becoming good friends I have sought an opportunity to compose something for her that fulfils my needs as a composer and her talents as a performer. When Ilona introduced me to the poetry of Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) this was the final catalyst. It is direct, powerful and deeply personal yet its universal humanity struck me deeply, so much so that after a period of mental procrastination, the composing of the work was brief and immediate. The performance of it could not be in better and more thoughtful hands.' Benjamin Ellin, 1st July, 2009
I first encountered the music of Vera Ivanova (b. 1977) in 2007. She is a young Russian composer currently living in California and I premiered her three-part song cycle, Sea: the Soul of Spain, at the London Festival with the pianist Nigel Foster. The songs are based on a text by the Spanish poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (1836-1870) and in each song the emotional state of a heroine is reflected through the imagery of the sea. I was particularly struck by the last song, Great Waves, in which a woman is confronted with the fear of being alone in her misery, with the cascades of roaring waves and the blasts of a hurricane represented in the music.
Ani Havazelet ha-Sharon (I am the lily of the valleys) was written by Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984), who was born in Munich but emigrated to Palestine in 1933 and eventually became an Israeli citizen. His interest in Hebrew poetry, and in the traditional melodies of Jewish and Arabic music, influenced his compositional style and he incorporated elements of traditional music in his own works. The poem here is taken from the Song of Songs from the Tanakh. In most translations the main characters of the song are a woman and a man, and the poem suggests the transition from courtship to love-making, the references to fruit adding an erotic undertone to the song.
The final four songs are operatic arias, which present their own unique challenge as, unlike chamber songs, which tend to be self-contained dramas in miniature, they can be difficult to present outside the context of the whole opera. Arias often allow a character to express a particular feeling relevant to the drama at that point in the opera, and to explore it in depth, thus allowing the character to grow and contributing to the overall progress of the drama.
Handel's Endless pleasure, from his opera Semele, is an expression of innocent joy in which the heroine of the title, Semele, who has fallen in love with the god Jupiter, sings of the joyous pleasures that await her in heaven. Ultimately, however, she is a mere mortal and so theirs is a tale of impossible love.
In Mozart's The Magic Flute, Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night, is in love with Tamino, a prince. In order to win Pamina's hand in marriage Tamino agrees to undertake a series of trials, including a test of silence. Pamina, however, cannot understand why Tamino refuses to answer when she speaks to him. In the aria Ach, ich fühl's, Pamina, believing that Tamino no longer loves her, tells of her despair and her heartfelt wish to die. By the end of the opera, however, all misunderstandings have been resolved and Pamina and Tamino are wed.
La Rondine, by Puccini, tells the story of Magda, the mistress of Rambaldo, who hosts a social soirée in her salon. In Chi il bel sogno di Doretta the poet Prunier begins to sing about true love and a fictional character, Doretta, inviting Magda to finish the song. As a kept woman, Magda feels she cannot know real love but sings of Doretta's dream of a youthful affair with a penniless student – an affair in which genuine passion mattered much more than wealth – thus revealing her true feelings.
At the point in Gounod's opera Romeo et Juliette in which Juliette sings her aria Je veux vivre (I want to live), she has yet to meet Romeo and tells her nurse that she is not interested in marriage, stating that the ‘intoxication of youth' is all too short, unaware of what lies ahead.
It's a very personal selection of songs. What does it mean to you to perform them?
They're songs that have made an impression on me and I get real satisfaction from the thought that people might come away from my performances somehow changed, touched or transformed. I hope that everybody who listens to this CD will find a song here that speaks to their emotions and touches their heart. I think the performer's role in this was captured perfectly by Daniel Barenboim when he said: ‘What is amazing in music that it exists now, in a given time. Therefore a musician must perform with the freshness of a first encounter and the intensity of a last one.'
You've described some of the journey you've made to reach this point in your career. Have there been particular people that have inspired you or helped you along the way?
Many people, and too many to mention them all here, but I would like to dedicate this CD to Enid Hartle, my singing teacher, who died just three months before the recording took place. She has breathed life into my voice and encouraged me to aim high. And in the memory of Manfred Vanson, my great mentor and friend. I will always miss them.
I would also like to thank my most generous benefactors, Mrs. Marcia Elton and Mr. and Mrs. Jackman, my husband and my son, my mother and grandmother, and Dr. Jill White, without whom this project would not have been possible.
Special thanks also go to Sarah Walker and Joan Rodgers for all their inspiration, guidance and expert coaching.
© Terence Curran BBC 4 2009