Melodiya: Songs and arias by Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Glinka and Rachmaninoff

Marianne Fiset; Marie-Eve Scarfone; Orchestre Radio-Canada Musique/Tremblay (Analekta AN29962)

25 August 2009 4 stars

FisetThis recital of Russian repertoire is Marianne Fiset's second solo disc, following on from a well-received recording of Ravel and Debussy songs, but the young soprano will be new to many, as her career so far appears to have been largely confined to Canada and other francophone countries. The programme immediately arouses interest and hints at something beyond the ordinary: Mussorgsky, Rachmaninoff, Glinka and Tchaikovsky are a far cry from the Handel or Mozart discs favoured by most of today's young singers who are lucky enough to have a recording contract.

The disc opens with Mussorgsky's Six Posthumous Songs orchestrated by Igor Markevitch, and the first impression is of a fundamentally lyric soprano sound with a rare depth of colour to it, and of an artist with a beautiful, natural legato and a strong sense of line. Her Russian diction is well articulated, even if a clearer differentiation between the vowel sounds is sometimes called for. It only takes until the end of the second song, however, for the listener to gain a good sense of what appear to be Fiset's strengths and weaknesses as presented across the whole disc. In addition to the positive attributes already listed, she has an upper register which threatens to turn wirey when deployed at forte, as demonstrated in the extrovert climaxes of 'Strekotunya bieloboka'. The commitment displayed in 'Na Dniepre' is compelling, and Fiset does not shy away from taking her voice to its limits over the Mussorgskian orchestra, but one wonders how comfortable she is in repertoire on such a scale.

Her selection of Rachmaninoff and Glinka songs with piano is absolutely beautiful, and her ability to spin a long phrase laden with pathos and momentum simultaneously becomes even more apparent in the justifiably famous 'Ne poj, krasavitsa'. The top B natural in 'Zdes' khorosho' shows how lovely that part of her voice is when approached without pressure, and her management of the surging phrases in 'Vesennije vody' demonstrates a thorough understanding of the style. Fiset lavishes the same breadth of phrasing and generosity of line on the earlier Glinka songs. The accompaniments, sensitively played by Marie-Eve Scarfone, could be Bellini, and the singer blends the elements of Italian bel canto and Russian dusha that are called for with mesmeric musicianship, especially evident in the melismas of the 'Barkarola'.

The recital closes with Tatyana's letter scene from Act I Scene 2 of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. Jean-Philippe Tremblay conducts the Orchestre Radio-Canada Musique in a rather brisk account which achieves an admirable lightness indicative of Tatyana's youth, but which doesn't always appear to give Fiset enough room for manoeuvre either vocally, or in terms of exploration of the strong emotions the character is experiencing. Tatyana's passion, rapture, fears and doubts are all consuming, and the self-indulgence of her teenage angst would be more effectively illustrated and supported by more indulgence in the riches of Tchaikovsky's score from Tremblay. Fiset sings the scene idiomatically and well under the circumstances, but the whole would be more convincing if all of its aspects were taken to their extreme states. Quiet passages could be more intimate, slow passages could have more of a sense of stasis, faster passages could have more urgency, climaxes could be bigger and the text throughout could be handled with more engagement and relish.

The disc is something of a mixed bag then, featuring as it does some superlative performances of Rachmaninoff and Glinka songs, an appealing rendition of the Mussorgsky songs even if Fiset turns out to be perhaps a size too small to do them full justice, and a rather ordinary account of the Letter Scene to which I would probably not feel inclined to return. It does, however, bring to our attention a singer with an exceptionally lovely voice who is a cut above many other sopranos in her fach in terms of musicianship, and who I look forward to catching in live performance as her international career continues to take flight.

By John Woods