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Christianne Stotijn - Tchaikovsky Romances

Classic FM Magazine - April 2009 - CD of the Month *****
 
"Bewitching"
 
MostlyOperaBlogspot.com
 
Dutch mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn (born 1977) seems set on making an international singing career centered around concert- and liedsinging and just released her fourth solo album "Tchaikovsky romances" on Onyx.
What genuinely places Christianne Stotijn apart from the vast majority of her colleagues is not fundamentally the voice. Though Christianne Stotijn´s voice is beautiful as well as first-rate, it doesn´t have the even, creamy beauty of colleagues such as Angelika Kirchschlager or Magdalena Kozena.
What she does have, though, is a genuinely unique expressivity based around a seemingly deep understanding of the text and musical structures. The myriads of moods and colours she applies to these Tchaikovsky songs are quite extraordinary, always emphasizing the words and clearly chosing expressivity over beauty of tone, when faced with the choice.
Highly recommended.
 
Gramophone Editor's Choice - February 2009 - Patrick O' Connor
 
 
An album to remind one of the treasures of Russian song. Remember that wonderful Sergei Leiferkus Mussorgsky song series? But I digress. The ever more impressive Christianne Stotijn invests this marvellous collection with intelligence and refulgent tone, even managing to sound idiomatic (well, to my non-Russian ears). She is well matched by Julius Drake. A real pleasure. [James Inverne]
 
Stotijn loses nothing in comparison with ghosts from the past. Her voice is a full-blooded mezzo but steady and true, without a hint of that vibrato that can often disturb the line in Slavonic singers....the piano parts are superbly done: in every sense these songs are duets...Tchaikovsky's songs are not nearly well enough known and this superb recital should enourage more interest in them. A second volume, please, and soon! Highly recommended.
 
 
BBC Music Magazine ***** March 2009 - David Nice
 
Christianne Stotijn is that artist in a thousand whose personality shines through in everything she does...Stotijn's charisma and her beautifully recorded altoish depth of tone are enough to hold me spellbound
 
MusicWeb International - Goran Forsling 28.2.09
 
Last year reviewed the two latest instalments in the Naxos series of the complete Tchaikovsky songs. I was seriously disappointed. So it’s a great pleasure to receive this disc as a corrective. And not just as a corrective, since this is in fact the best disc with Tchaikovsky’s songs since Elisabeth Söderström’s collaboration with Vladimir Ashkenazy more than twenty-five years ago. They produced quite a number of memorable recordings, including also a substantial helping of Rachmaninov songs, which also have to be regarded as benchmark versions. Tchaikovsky’s songs have seen one or two comparable recordings, one of the most recommendable is a Hyperion disc with Joan Rodgers. I gather that CD is being reissued in the Helios series. Whatever the merits of that issue, of which I have heard only a couple of excerpts, it would have to be very good indeed to challenge the present disc with Christianne Stotijn. Though her Russian seems impeccable to my non-Slavonic ears she is Dutch. I have had reason to praise her on a couple of previous occasions, most substantially her Mahler recital that arrived  a little over a year ago (review).
 
The largely melancholy world of Tchaikovsky seems to suit Ms Stotijn to perfection. She radiates warmth and has beautiful tone. Her quick vibrato, which is perfectly controlled, adds personality. Moreover, and this is most important for a singer of romances, her phrasing is unerringly musical and sensitive. She opens the recital with two of the most well-known Tchaikovsky songs. In At the ball all the aforementioned characteristics are in clear evidence. None but the lonely heart, sung and recorded by almost every singer of some importance – and not only by artists in the classical trade – is even better. Julius Drake’s superb introduction is in itself almost worth the price of the disc. Stotijn is wonderfully inward and concentrated. I can’t remember hearing a finer reading ever.
 
The positive impressions of these two songs remain throughout the programme and are even enhanced. Drake is certainly one of today’s foremost accompanists, flexible and sensitive. His playing in the dramatic and intense Over burning ashes is magnificent. He is a pillar of strength throughout the disc. Regarding Christianne Stotijn, her real strength is that she neither sentimentalizes the songs nor invests them with more dramatic gestures than they can hold. After all these songs – at least most of them – are lyrical miniatures and actually grow in stature when sung inwardly. Some of the most ravishing examples of this aspect are the intimate My genius, my angel, my friend and Lullaby. Especially in the latter it is remarkable how skilfully Stotijn lightens her rather voluminous voice and caresses the melody with beautiful pianissimo singing. At the other end of the spectrum is Had I only known: intense, emotionally charged and still subtly nuanced. This is the song I will return to most often in the future but I am sure I will be tempted to play the rest of the recital as well, once I have started listening. In a more light-hearted mood Cuckoo, one of Elisabeth Söderström’s favourite songs, is another real hit.
 
With this disc Christianne Stotijn takes a big leap from ‘utterly promising’ to ‘near the top of the trade’. I will be eagerly awaiting her future excursions in the song literature – why not a sequel to this one? There are enough gems among Tchaikovsky’s songs to fill a volume two. In the meantime the present disc should be savoured by all lovers of good song interpretation.
 
 
Musical Criticism.com - Hugo Shirley 12.2.09 ****
 
Christianne Stotijn's new disc for Onyx sees her leave behind the German lieder that she sang, to great acclaim, on her first two discs for the label to tackle a programme of Tchaikovsky. And with her now regular accompanist, Julius Drake, the results are no less persuasive.
Richard Sylvester's liner note quotes a description of Tchaikovsky's song output – he wrote more than 100, designating them Romances – as 'the most poignant creations of his genius'. This is very much borne out by the selection here and they are songs which even with the scantest knowledge of Tchaikovsky's biography take on even greater poignancy. The poems speak predominantly of love, but it's a love that seems only to result in pain, fear of rejection and regret: a mood that Tchaikovsky captures consistently with a touching, highly personal blend of melody and melancholy.
The programme extends from the early 'My genius, my angel, my friend' (1857) – an astonishingly assured song in terms of both musical language and technique – through most of Tchaikovsky's creative life and for anyone familiar with Stotijn's talent and temperament, it will come as no surprise to find her very much at one with the composer's idiom. From the start of 'At the ball', which opens the disc, Stotijn captures that mixture of wide-eyed vulnerability and suppressed passion that runs through much of the programme. Some might find her way with the favourite songs a touch understated at times – she makes a lot less of 'Why?', for example, than some – yet she does not turn her back on the raw emotion that often rears its head in the midst of so much melancholy reverie.
Stotijn's control is consistently impressive, such as in a beautifully nuanced and haunting rendition of 'Lullaby', with its floated top note on the penultimate line, or the pared down sound she produces for the final melisma in 'My genius'. In the 'Bride's lament', she once again captures the almost objective melancholy but, when required, injects emotion to telling effect, here to Drake's gentle embellishment of the vocal line.
Several of the songs are highly suggestive of the operas, perhaps none more so than 'The fearful moment'. Despite its strong musical and poetical hints of Tatyana in Evgeny Onegin, however, Tchaikovsky here provides his own verse in a song that can hardly be listened to without thought of the emotional turmoil that informed much of his biography. Again and again the highly personal nature of these Romances comes to the fore, such as with the almost shockingly emotional outburst in the piano part at the heart of 'Do not believe, my friend'. Even 'Can it be day', one of the few songs on the disc that captures the exhilaration of being in love, ends in a thoughtful postlude (beautifully shaped by Drake), while the optimism that one feels at the start of 'It was early Spring' again dissolves into something less up-beat.
Possibly the most enjoyable number on the disc is the delightful 'Cuckoo', one of several songs Tchaikovsky wrote 'for children' but which is both humorous and sophisticated, looking forward to Mahler's 'Lob des hohen Verstands', yet without its satirical undertow. There's nothing elementary about the demands it makes on the performers – both of whom are exemplary – however it leaves one wishing that maybe the decision had been made to leaven the atmosphere with a few more songs in this vein. 
Although she seems particularly adept at finding the Schumannesque Innigkeit that is prominent here, Stotijn produces heart-felt emotion, never artificially heightened, when called for. There have no doubt been more powerfully charged – or highly-strung – champions of this relatively unknown part of Tchaikovsky's output (such as Julia Varady on her Orfeo recital) yet Stotijn's approach is convincing and affecting. With typically sensitive support from Drake and natural engineering from Onyx, this disc can be highly recommended
 
Financial Times, London - 16.1.09 **** Andrew Clark
 
For anyone reared on his symphonies and concertos, the quality and quantity of Tchaikovsky's songs can come as a surprise. Many sound like operatic scenes, in which the yearning romanticism of the poetry is distilled through the composer's poignant imagination and melodic genius. Stotijn, deftly accompanied by Julius Drake, proves a winning guide, always keeping the emotion under wraps while indicating there is a pumping heart beneath the surface. Her selection of 20 songs ranges from the popular "None but the lonely heart" to the turbulent undertow of "Reconciliation", the tender nostalgia of "Mild stars looked down" and the folksy lilt of "Had I only known".
 
The Times - 16.1.09 **** Geoff Brown
 
Among young mezzo-sopranos, Christianne Stotijn is in a class apart; she stamps every note and word with character, and delivers her songs with a lyrical glow that considerably advances global warming.
 
This Tchaikovsky selection rolls happily through plangent love dramas and comic folk tales, through Tolstoy poems and Goethe too. Whatever the song, Stotijn sings from the heart to the heart. Praise too for Julius Drake, a deft piano accompanist.
 
Classical Source.com - Richard Nicholson 1.2.09
 
Here is another issue to confirm the multitude of lyric mezzos around today – and another with youth on her side. Christianne Stotijn offers the promise of many years to come at the highest level of performance. The voice is warm, firm and rounded in the lower register. Above C, when pressed, the vibrato loosens a little, which is less agreeable as sound but an authentic conveyor of dramatic expression. There has been some debate about the quality of Tchaikovsky’s songs. The Russian Romance does not occupy as prestigious a position in musical esteem as Lieder or mélodies. Among Russian song-composers it is Mussorgsky who holds the highest rank, a Debussy to Tchaikovsky’s Gounod, as it were. Of this selection, however, I find only one setting that is redolent of the salon (“Early spring”). It is true that many are restricted to a single mood; though the way Stotijn and her ubiquitous and infinitely adaptable accompanist Julius Drake explore beneath the surface prevents monotony.
I was initially disconcerted by an acoustic that brings both participants close and gives the voice a halo of resonance, quite unlike a concert hall ambience. However, one soon gets accustomed to this.
As with a number of other composers (Mendelssohn, Rachmaninov, even Richard Strauss), only a handful of Tchaikovsky’s more than 100 songs appear on recital programmes. The attraction of this issue lies also in the exposure of some rarely performed compositions. Most of the best-known songs are here. Of those missing, “I bless you forests” and “Don Juan’s Serenade” are expressly male songs but there would have been room for “Pimpinella”.

The recital begins with two familiar songs and ends with two more. Otherwise the order of the songs displays no clear, coherent structure. Neither chronology nor theme appears to determine the sequence. There is some alternation of major with minor keys in successive songs and a degree of contrasting moods. Fortunately the interpretations always maintain interest.

Stotijn’s is not on the whole a theatrical approach. In the familiar “None but the lonely heart”, itself greatly diluted in translation from Goethe’s original, we hear what sounds like the experience of a decent, everyday victim, detailing her suffering in long concentrated phrases, only briefly approaching a loss of emotional control (which she shamefacedly regrets before re-asserting her composure). “Not a word, my friend”, is another song of suffering in which a current state of depression is conveyed in grey, bleak tone in both the opening and closing phrases, framing a discharge of emotion in the central stanza, as the poet bemoans the contrast between present depression and past happiness.
“Over burning ashes”, another negative song, receives an imaginative setting. The agitated opening section describes how a smouldering parchment can flare up, destroying both itself and the words it contains. A contrasted reflective middle section describes the poet’s own state of unproductive Weltschmerz. He suddenly sees the possibility of turning this metaphor into the reality of his escape from misery through suicide, signalling a return to the initial tempo. Stotijn draws upon the range of colours in her voice to convey the monotony of the poet’s current existence and his elation when the solution presents itself; the latter is heightened by Drake’s playing of the furious running, tumbling semiquavers in the postlude.
One is often conscious of references to Tchaikovsky’s own unhappy life and frustrations. Many of these songs are subjective and expressive of intense emotion. The theme of nostalgia for an irretrievable past happiness appears frequently in the collection. In “Reconciliation”, although the poet declares the futility of longing for its return, Tchaikovsky’s setting clearly leaves little doubt that the subject cannot accept this. In a final verse of protest against fatalism, Stotijn’s tone freezes with misery and Drake’s postlude emphasises its false conclusions, as if not bearing to bring an end to the memories.

Never do the artists wallow in self-pity. Nothing is overdone. Discreet restraint is applied from the start. The writer of “At the ball” may be love-struck but she is as yet unsure of herself and unwilling to surrender to the new experience. In the final lines, as she succumbs to her dreams, Stotijn’s lingering over the vowel sounds reinforces the sense of hesitancy.

Links can certainly be heard with Tchaikovsky’s operatic writing. “Eugene Onegin” is reflected is “The Fearful Moment”. Just as Tatiana has to endure the tense uncertainty that follows a declaration of love, here Tchaikovsky, in a setting of his own lyrics, conveys the apprehension and embarrassment.

To balance the unhappy element of the composer’s output there are some unadulterated happy items. “The sun has set” projects a mood of confident expectation at the transition into night, with bright prospects of fulfilment reflected in smiling tone and breathless anticipation as the composer’s consistently upward-moving vocal phrases are perfectly projected.

Some critics have berated Tchaikovsky’s piano-writing: preludes and postludes have been accused of having little connection with the texts that they surround. There is some support for this view in the prelude to “Can it be day”, what the writer of the booklet note, Richard D. Sylvester, calls the “easy-going Andantino” with which the piano part begins seems to have no link either with the playful semiquavers into which it metamorphoses or the flowing phrases which eventually characterise the song.

The interpretations of this partnership belie that accusation. On several occasions the pianist defines or confirms the ultimate meaning of the song in his concluding solo bars. In “Why?” the voice breaks off, unsure of the answer to the question, to be succeeded by the pianist. On numerous occasions Drake’s use of the sustaining pedal extends the duration of a song and forces us to reflect on its message. Folk-style also plays its part. Included here is only one of Tchaikovsky’s songs for children “The Cuckoo”. This takes the form of a dialogue, not unlike a setting in Mahler’s “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”, with an imaginative and powerful piano accompaniment and the opportunity for the singer to characterise, which Stotijn does with the beaming grin of a true comedian and without being arch.

The great triumph here is “Had I only known?”, in which a girl bemoans her failure to anticipate her betrayal by a lover. The folksong-like piano figures at the start and the finish encase a dramatic narration in which the singer first utters repeated snatched phrases of bewilderment, echoed by the pianist. In the second stanza she turns to a more melodic style, growing in urgency and reaching a climax before resuming the initial fragmentary utterances, culminating in a descending scale passage worthy of an operatic soprano. The transformation of folksong into operatic aria has yet one more twist, as a final repetition of the phrase of regret she had been using throughout culminates in a long, wordless melisma down in to the depths of the singer’s chest register. This is a four-minute masterpiece!

Professor Sylvester has neatly condensed the commentary on each of the songs contained in his book “Tchaikovsky’s Complete Songs: A Companion with Texts and Translations” and Onyx have supplied those translations alongside transliterations of the original Russian texts. The book lists in each case the artists who have recorded each of the 103 Tchaikovsky songs. The length of that list underlines how rewarding these Romances have been to singers. Another advantage of the book is its inclusion of a CD containing recordings (made between 1910 and 1979) of twenty-two of Tchaikovsky’s songs.

To judge by the thought that has been put into this recital and also its execution, Christianne Stotijn can be expected to illuminate the Art-Song repertoire as she extends the range of songs.