RUSSIA: A Tribute to Stesha: Early Music of Russian Gypsies (Kolpakov Trio/ Oleg Timofeyev/ Talisman) (Naxos: 76065-2)
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This recording is a tribute to the celebrated Russian-Gypsy diva Stepanida Soldatova (1787-1822),whose talent and imaginative performances influenced several generations of Russian musicians,composers, and writers. Professionally trained in bel canto, Stepanida synthesized her own signaturestyle, combining the qualities of virtuoso operatic style and the oral performance tradition ofEastern-European Gypsies (Rroma).
Stesha, as she was known to her friends, started her performing career very young, singing withthe famous Gypsy choir that was founded by Count Orlov during the reign of Catherine the Great.
When she was only sixteen, she had a chance to listen to Teresa Maciurletti, an actress of the StPetersburg Italian Opera who performed several concerts in Moscow in 1803. This encounterapparently defined young Stesha's aspirations to study professional music and the art of bel canto,and to apply these skills to her performance of Russian folk-songs. The direction this young singerchose for herself was completely atypical for a Gypsy musician of the time. Stesha was lucky to finda wealthy and competent music-lover who 'applied all possible means to educate her extraordinarytalent and taste'. She soon began to perform with her own ensemble, consisting of a male guitarist,a male violinist, and two more women singers. Typically for the Gypsy ensembles of the time, allmembers of the group also sang in choruses and danced - Stepanida herself was described as anextraordinary dancer.
One of Stesha's admirers described her ensemble's performance: '... one played violin, the otherguitar, the women sang harmony, and all of it was such a chorus that one couldn't but be struck with itsresonance: it sounded like a real organ. And yet, Stepanida's voice in forte passages covered all the voices andinstruments, and at gentle moments was particularly harmonious'.
According to the same source, the famous Italian prima donna Angelica Catalani was so deeplymoved by Stesha's performance, that she immediately presented the Gypsy singer with a ring wortha thousand roubles. During her short and turbulent life Stepanida must have come across a greatnumber of passionate and generous admirers. So it is all the more shocking that after her death nosavings were left: this generous woman had supported not only her closest relatives, but severalother families.
Unfortunately, although they admired Stesha, the composers, performers, and music-loversamong her contemporaries only rarely took the trouble of writing down her arrangements orvariations. We are grateful, however, that at least a list of Stesha's repertoire is well-documented:the folk-songs that her group performed appear in several nineteenth-century sources.
To undertake a reconstruction of Stesha's art we had to work in two directions. First, weexamined many scores of the well-known and obscure Russian composers whose arrangementsmust have been known to her: Ivan Rupin, Daniil Kashin, Aleksandr Alyabyev. Second, we learnedabout the Russian-Gypsy performance tradition first-hand by collaborating with an amazing trio ofMoscow Gypsy musicians led by the legendary seven-string guitarist Aleksandr Kolpakov. TheRussian Gypsies preserve aspects of earlier Russian music-making through oral transmission thatotherwise have been lost. For example they are practically the only group who now still performprofessionally on the seven-string guitar, a unique Russian instrument in open G major tuning,especially popular in Russia between about 1800 and 1850. Since the widespread popularity of theinstrument coincided with the rise in popularity of Gypsy choirs and soloists, the seven-string guitarbecame the favourite instrument of Russian Gypsies.
All the songs with Russian lyrics [tracks 2, 3, 5, 9, 11, 15, 17, 18] originate in written sources andare freely arranged according to 'Gypsy guidelines'. This means that following the enthusiastic andgenerous advice of the Kolpakovs, we truncated the lyrics of the Russian folk-songs, sacrificingexcessive narrative detail in favour of nonsense syllables such as 'ay nane'. More importantly, wefollowed the structural templates that our Gypsy colleagues offered for the tempi and rhythm in eachpiece. For example, in the Russian Gypsy tradition, it is common to start a song with a guitarprelude, then to continue in a recitative-like verse with minimal accompaniment, and only graduallyto gain the engaging rhythmic vitality that is so typical for Rroma performers worldwide.
For the songs in the Rroma language [tracks 4, 6, 8, 12, 14, 19], our Rroma colleagues showedthe rest of the group how to perform this music according to Russian Gypsy performance practicethat has been passed down orally, generation to generation, since Stesha's time. They taught us thewords, harmonic patterns, melodic variations, dancing and clapping practice, together with manynuances that cannot possibly be put down on paper.
Given the multiplicity of styles in which she sang, Stesha herself is an early example of 'crossover'musicality. In our programme the operatic and the ethnic facets of her singing areimpersonated by the early music specialist Anne Harley and by a celebrated Muscovite Gypsysinger, Tamara Cherepovskaia, respectively.
The album starts with Sasha Kolpakov's own guitar composition Khelebnitko , which mergesinto our arrangement of The Little Willow Tree , a playful Russian folk-song from Stesha'srepertoire. In our attempt to reconstruct some of the theatrical elements of the nineteenth-centuryGypsy choirs, we dwell upon the song's dramatic narrative, introducing every member of ourensemble with a line of the song. The next song, As The Mist Rose , is based on the only survivingsample of Stesha's singing, as notated by Aleksandr Guriliov. Full of melodic embellishment, thissong gives a striking example of the Schubertian juxtaposition of A minor and A major, which isatypical in Russian folk-songs but rather common in Russian romansy. The pensive prelude isimprovised by Sasha Kolpakov, and the rest of the arrangement is the result of our collective effort torework the original piano score. Tamara Cherepovskaia's response to this ephemeral composition isthe engaging Mar Dzhandzha . Similar to the other traditional Rroma items on the programme[tracks 6, 8, 12, 14, 19], this song is a Gypsy hit that any group of Russian Gypsies can perform at amoment's notice. Here Etienne Abelin's violin variations are the result of his ad hocethnomusicological research: he spent hours collecting and transcribing musical ideas from Sashaand Vadim. The tantalising Luchinushka was one of the most beloved concert items of the time.
The guitar variations I Knew No Worries, Ah Mother, I Have A Headache, and I Am A Gypsy Girl\ , and  respectively, were published by the celebrated Russian guitarist, composer, andimproviser Mikhail Vysotsky (1791-1837). Vysotsky was renowned for his love for Gypsy music: inhis virtuosic guitar variations he often imitates the Gypsy vocal style of the time, full of legato,glissando, and portamento gestures. In turn, the Gypsy musicians from Ilya Sokolov's choir took guitarlessons from Vysotsky and adopted some of his technical discoveries for their needs. As incredibleas it may seem, we find vestiges of this exchange to this day in the seven-string style of Sasha andVadim Kolpakov.
There are several different settings of Ah, Had I Known Before  that Stesha might have sung withher ensemble. We used the version by Alexander Alyabyev (1787-1857), not only because of itssuperior quality, but also because it offered a four-part choral response to each verse, a typicalfeature of Russian romances composed in Gypsy style.
Of particular interest are the violin variations on Luchinushka by Gavriil Rachinsky (1777-1843). Arenowned virtuoso of his tim