The world premiere performance and recording of Valentin Mihai Bogdan’s set Three Songs, featuring soprano Janet Hopkins and pianist Armen Shaomian, is faithful to the spirit of the poetry and composition. Bogdan’s programmatic songs on Eminescu’s elegantly refined Romanian poetry aim to match the text in depth and meaning.
The Romanian poetry presents a challenge to the singer, since the intricacies of its pronunciation are not a standard part of lyric diction training. Hopkins makes a commendable effort to encounter this difficult language. Eminescu is undoubtedly the greatest poet of Romania and one of the great Romantics of his era, and in these poems he particularly elevates Love and Nature in a triumphant victory of feelings over reason. From Eminescu’s works, Bogdan chose three unrelated poems with moods correlating with one another; therefore the similarities among the songs entangle the reception of the composition and its premiere performance.
The first song in the set, “Sleepy Birds,” opens in a notturno scene with silent, soon-to-be-asleep winged characters. The verses deliver child-like “goodnight” wishes to little birds, to the flowers and to the swans, and end with the beautification of the moonlight. A tapping motive in the piano, somewhat at odds with the text, is however exquisitely carried out by Armen’s brilliance. For most of the song, a symmetry of vocal verses is followed by imitative piano commentary, triggering expectations. The song appears wanting in longer lines but successfully brings a world of sound of its own delicacy effectively presented by both performers.
The second song, an outcry or lament for a lost love, is indicated “passionate, with lots of rubato,” and the performers share with us their genuine excitement. The poet, however, speaks with gratitude for the painful memory of the beloved. He becomes a tragic figure lamenting in a similar natural setting as that in the first song: trees around the lake mirroring the moonlight. Noticeable although secondary, an underlying tone of resignation and muted suffering seems cherished. Bogdan’s music emboldens the lost passion instead of the defeat of the lost love. The performers’ ardent passion befits this dramatic musical center of the set, and leads them to an explosion of painful sentiment. The piano textures are gestural, and this performance could have been enhanced by emphasizing longer sweeping lines over detail.
The last song in the set, “The Years Have Passed” is indicated as “pensive and melancholic with a slight rubato” and surprises with the conflict of intense dynamics in the piano part opposing the poetry. Hopkins warmly expresses the poet’s struggle, which is echoed in and partially eclipsed by the intensity of Armen’s playing. The musical discourse becomes agitated and later brings a recitativo-like section in the vocal part, while the piano reflections are marked by powerful outbursts. Both performers persuasively serve the poetic and musical messages of darkness and hopelessness.
This video offers a welcoming musical offering of a noble and operatic manner. Ms. Hopkins is well-known to the public for her operatic successes from Mozart to Wagner and beyond. She is the recipient of many prestigious awards and prizes. Her collaboration with her dedicated pianist, Dr. Shaomian, serves well the very purpose of the performer’s role: to make all that matters for the musical offering and encourage the musically beautiful, known or unknown. In this video, they introduce to the public a new set of songs on Romanian poetry by Eminescu who reminds us of a vastly different way of expressing emotion.