Gamma Majoris is a London-based ensemble created by 4 established soloists: Ksenia Berezina (violin), Yulia Chaplina (piano), Alisa Liubarskaya (cello) and Anastasia Prokofieva (soprano). The ensemble’s name derives from the star Gamma Ursae Majoris and the term for 'major scale' in Russian musical terms (гамма - scale, мажор - major).
The debut release by this ensemble presents music by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov in arrangements by the ensemble. “The idea of arranging Russian songs emerged spontaneously from a rehearsal one day. What would happen if we added lyrical string instruments to complement the soaring melodies and polyphonic and complex accompaniments of songs by the great Russian composers? To our delight, it worked beautifully.”
The songs cover a wide emotional range, from dark and dramatic, to tender and the overall concept chimes with the idea of late-nineteenth domestic music-making, with the Tchaikovsky settings of texts by Russian poets including Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Rachmaninov also using translations of Shelley and Hugo.
In the late nineteenth century, when domestic entertainment could not be summoned at the press of a switch but had to be created in the parlour around a piano, there was a high demand for piano pieces and songs within the modest reach of amateur performers. Many composers met this need, including Tchaikovsky, though his songs often reach well above the sentimental romances written by so many of his contemporaries in Russia and abroad. Indeed, one of Tchaikovsky’s enduring qualities was his reluctance to write any music unless he had been inspired, or at least genuinely touched by a libretto or poem.
Though Tchaikovsky’s greatest operas were inspired by Russia’s most celebrated poet, Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), he only twice made song settings of that poet’s work. More often, his songs set intimate poetry by several lesser writers, many of them known to him personally such as Aleksey Apukhtin (1840-93), a talented poet who had also been a classmate of Tchaikovsky’s at St Petersburg’s Imperial School of Jurisprudence.
Another friend whose poetry Tchaikovsky set was Konstantin Konstantinovich Romanov (1858-1915), a cousin of Tsar Alexander III. Tchaikovsky had first been introduced – somewhat reluctantly – to Konstantin in 1880, but had been totally won over by the then 22-year-old’s enthusiasm for music, on which subject they talked on that first meeting from nine in the evening until two in the morning. Tchaikovsky’s Six Romances, Op. 63, composed in 1887, set lyrics by Romanov. The two songs performed here from this set show Tchaikovsky in by turns extrovert mood (Serenade) and, in ‘By an open window’, sweet and forthright, with just a hint of the poignant longing suggested by the poem – a mood typical of Tchaikovsky’s work.
Tchaikovsky composed Nocturne, one of a pair of piano pieces, in the winter of 1871-72 while on holiday in Nice: he dedicated this to his travelling companion, Vladimir Shilovsky, a poet and amateur composer. ‘Un poco di Chopin’ comes from near the end of Tchaikovsky’s career, composed just six months before his death in 1893. Composed in homage to the great Polish composer, this mazurka was presented to the pianist and Moscow Conservatory teacher Sergey Remezov.
‘Do not believe it’ sets verse by Alexei Tolstoy (1817-75), a poet whose work attracted several Russian composers for its sincere sentiments and easy lyricism. Tchaikovsky clearly felt at home with Tolstoy’s work, setting several of his verses including in some of his most celebrated songs. ‘Do not believe it’ is the opening song of Tchaikovsky’s first published collection, Op. 6 (composed 1869): in this song, he adds dramatic tension by using a recurring motif based on the singer’s opening phrase, suggesting the protagonist’s obsessive yearning for their beloved. Equally prophetic of his great operatic works is ‘Zachem?’ (Why did I dream of you?), the third of his Six Romances, Op. 28 (1875): setting a poem by Lev Mey (1822-62), its melancholic, plaintive start clearly foreshadows Tytania’s letter scene in Eugene Onegin. Mey’s translation of Goethe’s ‘Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt’ (known in English as ‘None but the lonely heart’) inspired Tchaikovsky to one of his greatest songs, albeit suggesting wistful longing rather than the pain of separation suggested by Goethe’s original.
‘Tell me, what in the shade of branches’, composed early in 1884, sets a ballade by Vladimir Sollogub (1813-82). One of his most operatic songs, Tchaikovsky dedicated this to Fyodor Komissarzhevsky, creator of the title role in his opera Vakula the Smith (premiered in 1876). The song bears a strong kinship with an aria from Tchaikovsky’s newly composed opera Mazepa, in which the title character assures his young beloved of his constant love.
Tchaikovsky greatly loved and admired French music, and he confessed that his 1880 setting of ‘Softly the soul flew to heaven’, another Aleksey Tolstoy poem, was inspired by the duet between Christ and Mary Magdalene in Massenet’s oratorio [itals]. ‘Take my heart away’, composed in October 1873, sets a poem by Afanasy Fet (1820-92). Though little known outside Russia, Fet was a lyric poet greatly admired by his compatriots, including Tchaikovsky who, writing to Romanov, compared Fet’s verse to the music of Beethoven. The poem expresses the longing of an absent beloved, and Tchaikovsky’s setting reflects the agitated emotions of the protagonist.
Alexei Tolstoy’s ‘At the ball’ was directly inspired by the poet’s own experience of catching sight and falling in love with Sofya Miller, whom he finally married some 12 years later. Tchaikovsky found the poem in an anthology sent to him by his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, and it was on her estate that in 1878 he composed the song, one of his most haunting, together with five companions to make up a set, Op. 38.
The Méditation for piano solo is the fifth piece from Op. 72, the same collection from which ‘Un poco di Chopin’ is taken. Yearning from the start, it builds to an impassioned climax before resuming the opening theme with filigree decoration, its long-protracted ending seemingly reluctant to release the moment.
‘We were sitting together’ is taken from Tchaikovsky’s final collection of songs, Op. 73 – indeed, this was his last completed composition, composed in May 1893. The previous August a young law student and amateur poet, Daniil Rathaus, had sent Tchaikovsky some of his verses. Immediately struck by ‘We were sitting together’, Tchaikovsky quickly sketched the vocal part for the first verse. He eventually composed his usual number of six songs for a set, only this time they appear to work together as a cycle, one that is closely related to Tchaikovsky’s final symphony, the Pathétique: the poems set by Tchaikovsky tell of two lovers who enjoy one night of bliss only to be cruelly parted. In the opening song, heard here, the poet is full of regret for not having said what is in their heart.
Although Rachmaninov’s music was deeply permeated with Tchaikovsky’s style and was much admired by the great composer, the younger composer had greater ambition as a song writer. Indeed, he showed little inclination or indulgence towards what might be called the ‘domestic’ market. Yet, for all his experience as a conductor of opera, Rachmaninov, unlike Tchaikovsky, failed to find success in that genre: song, therefore, was his prime outlet for vocal writing. Unlike Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov more consistently turned to high quality poetry for his songs, and was inspired by some of the greatest singers of his time including the operatic bass Feodor Chaliapin, and the soprano Nina Koshetz, both of them close friends of his. The original piano parts, as one might expect from one of the greatest pianists of all time, are far more challenging and richly varied than Tchaikovsky’s – prime candidates for instrumental arrangement as here.
‘At my window’ is taken from Rachmaninov’s impressive collection of fifteen songs, Op. 26, composed in 1906 at his regular rural summer retreat in Ivanovka, about 300 miles south of Moscow. Rachmaninov loved being in this estate, surrounded by the steppe “like an infinite sea where the waters are actually boundless fields of wheat, rye, oats, stretching from horizon to horizon. Sea air is often praised, but how much more do I love the air of the steppe, with its aroma of earth and all that grows and blossoms.” In ‘At my window’, the poet looks outside rapt at the sights and smells of spring. ‘The Isle’, composed some ten years earlier, sets Balmont’s translation of a poem by the Englishman Shelley, and again is a rapt hymn to nature. ‘April!’ (‘C’était en Avril’) is an even earlier work from 1891, a setting of verse by Edouard Pailleron composed when Rachmaninov was still a student at the Moscow Conservatory. Depicting two lovers rapturously seated amid the beauties of nature, it undoubtedly resonated with Rachmaninov: in the previous summer, aged 17, he had become besotted with his 15-year-old cousin Natalia Skalon, whom he had met on his first visit to Ivanovka that year. Though he was forbidden by Natalia’s mother to see her again, Rachmaninov and Natalia kept up a secret correspondence, which was still going strong at the time he composed this song.
Eleven years later, Rachmaninov was composing another set of songs. His Op. 21 set include several of his best, apparently inspired by love as he was soon to be married – not to Natalia Skalon, but to another cousin, Natalia Satina. Appropriately, the three thousand ruble fee paid by his publisher for the entire set covered the cost of his honeymoon. ‘They Answered’ sets another French poem, this time by Victor Hugo, translated by Mey.
‘Do not sing, my beauty’, composed in the summer of 1893, sets a poem by Pushkin, itself inspired by his exile to the southern reaches of the Imperial empire. Rachmaninov imbues the song with both folk-like simplicity, and with certain exotic touches such as vocal melismata and a piano melody based on an oriental-sounding scale to evoke its Georgian setting. Similarly exotic and based on Pushkin (albeit, as adapted by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko) is Rachmaninov’s early opera, Aleko, composed in 1892, from which the Gypsies’ Dance is taken. Predating Carmen by some decades, Pushkin’s tale of wild gypsy love probably inspired Prosper Mérimée’s novella.
We return to Tchaikovsky with ‘Lullaby in a storm’, a haunting minor-key song taken from 16 Songs for Children, Op. 54 – later used by Stravinsky for the opening of his ballet The Fairy’s Kiss. The following Waltz, originally composed in 1876, was revised two years later before being published in a set of 12 Pieces, Op. 40, which Tchaikovsky dedicated to his brother Modest. The song ‘It was in early spring’, composed in the same year, sets another Aleksey Tolstoy poem from the anthology provided by von Meck – this one a recollection of young love.
In contrast follows the stormy and passionate ‘On this Moonlit Night’, taken from Tchaikovsky’s melancholic final cycle of songs setting poems by Rathaus. Its sequel, ‘The Sunset’, is a would-be stoically upbeat song, sharing something of the character of the Pathétique’s second movement. Finally, we hear a rare instance in Tchaikovsky of love attained with a song setting Aleksey Apukhtin’s ‘In the glare of day, or in night’s silence’: this starts with a noble piano introduction before bursting its banks with an impetuous setting of the lyric itself.