… a big UD favorite, is Julia Lezhneva, singing Rachmaninoff’s Daisies to accompany UD on her train ride up to Boston. I like almost everything Lezhneva performs, but this small song in particular always gets me. And that’s odd, because it’s not the sort of music I generally like — “art” songs, sentimental, with titles like Daisies, drawn-out atonalities… I ask myself why I like this piece so much and here’s my list of possible reasons:

1. There’s a close-to-perfect feel to the performance – one Russian singing another, a perfect match of singer and song in terms of language and sensibility. It’s what a critic would call a “gem.” (Lezhneva won this competition, by the way – youngest singer to do that.)

2. The performance showcases what I find so amazing about Lezhneva – the way her voice always seems part of the score. Know what I mean? She’s so smooth, so inside the music, that there’s a seamless connection between piano and voice. Her sensibility is slightly self-abnegating – she’s no prima donna – and this deepens the sense of her fidelity to the music above all rather than her personal dramatic projection. (This is probably why I’m not put off by the sentimentality of the song.) Yet her voice as instrument is so remarkable that this never means she disappears inside the score.

3. Her voice as instrument? To my ear she has a piercing clarity and accuracy with her notes – not just the basic acrobatic fact of a soprano who can hit something really high, but the smooth ease with which she does that … The way her high notes aren’t like — deep breath! hit that sucker! — (and that’s a feeling I sometimes get with Joyce DiDonato, despite my deep respect for her singing). There’s something sedate and, as I say, undramatic about Lezhneva, which seems just right for this small Rachmaninoff piece – the ability to set a mood and sustain it, explore it a bit, resolve it.

Interestingly, the only Lezhneva stuff I’ve heard/seen that I haven’t liked is her operatic stage stuff. The same gestalt that makes her no Maria Callas makes her… no Maria Callas. There is something neat, self-contained, delicate, bird-like, about Lezhneva, with her modest height, her slight body, her small features, her paleness, her wispy light brown hair — she is the anti-Callas. Her effect is powerful in part because of the contrast between her unremarkable physical presence and the vocal power she generates; quietly faithful to the score, she gives you space to respond and not over-respond. She holds things back, which in my aesthetic experience tends to mean that the power of the expression is heightened.

I guess another way of saying this is that she ain’t very sexy – can’t see her getting much traction with this ditty.

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