RACHMANINOV: Songs – Evelina Dobraceva & Ekaterina Siurina, sop./ Justina Gringyte, mezzo-sop./ Daniil Shtoda, tenor/ Andrei Bondarenko, bar./ Rodion Pogossov, bar./ Alexander Vinogradov, bass/ Iain Burnside, p. 8 – Delphian DCD34127 (3 CDs), 55:56, 68:32, 55:50 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:

These are claimed to be the complete published songs of Rachmaninov, though the set is not quite complete in total. There are a few of the earlier songs that are missing that would give it completion status, though this is a quibble that won’t keep me up at night. In truth this is one of the finest sets of the songs I have ever heard, the brainstorm and love child of pianist Iain Burnside, a polyglot who spends much time in the world of radio and other media, but could, at least according to the excellence I hear on this recording, go full-time accompanist if he wanted to.

Rachmaninov was haunted in his early years by the songs of Tchaikovsky, and indeed the early songs do bear a resemblance to that sometime-inspired and sometime-workaday composer’s vocal pieces. The older master often produced some excellent songs but just as often produced some that smacked of a man searching for a text. Rachmaninov never seemed to give the texts all that much thought in terms of quality; indeed, he often went searching for them and asking friends to try and supply some. But what he pulled out of these poems far surpassed as an overall body of work anything his Russian idol was able to create, fine as many of those pieces are.

As time went on and the Tchaikovsky influence waned, the more intricate and even musically descriptive piano parts waxed. Though his song output only lasted a mere 26 years—his last years completely devoid of this particular genre—what he was able to accomplish, specifically in his Opus 34 and 38 folios, ranks with the best ever penned by anyone.

These 73 songs are gorgeously presented by this ensemble cast of seven native Russians, and they delve into this music with relish and a whole lot of passion. Each brings his or her own certain expressivity to the music, and I can’t think of one chink in this massive musical armor. I am especially pleased that the Opus 38 is done by Ekaterina Siurina, one of the finest upcoming sopranos today, and she really renders these pieces exquisitely. But I don’t want to short change the others—this is a delightful collection that belongs in everyone’s home, and if you haven’t paid attention to these songs before, this collection will easily remedy that. Queen’s Hall Edinburgh was the scene of this beautiful crime, and the sound is airy and natural.

—Steven Ritter