Salzburg Festival Recital 2023 Review: Asmik Grigorian & Lukas Geniušas

By João Marcos Copertino
(Photo: © SF/Marco Borrelli)

It is always good when a song recital does not include the usual suspects of the Lieder repertoire (you know who they are). This is nothing against “Die schöne Müllerin” or “Dichterliebe.” However, Asmik Grigorian and Lukas Geniušas’s recital was exciting because it featured Rachmaninoff songs, along with some small pieces by Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov for piano solo. Basically, they played the repertoire of their new album, “Dissonance,” by Alpha classics.

The only issue in doing this, is the sonic conditions of a recording room are far different from those of a live performance. For examle, what works in front of the mic often does not carry within the walls of a concert hall. While I still think highly of Grigorian and Geniušas’s recording, I was less impressed by how much was lost in their live performance.

Dissonance in Performance

Grigorian has a particularly beautiful voice, especially in her medium and lower registers. In her most piano moments, it is easy to hear her vocal kinship to a mid-career Galina Vishnevskaya (who also recorded Rachmaninoff songs with Mstislav Rostropovich at the piano!). The problem is not Grigorian’s instrument, but her difficulty in finding a recitalist persona that suits her instrument properly.

Many great opera singers are amazing recitalists, however many singers can only inhabit one of the two realms. Elly Ameling never managed to have a great operatic career, and nobody would expect Ghena Dimitrova to sing “Winterreise.” A good recitalist engages with a different, perhaps wider, color palette and more concise scenic persona than in opera. It is all theater, but in different registers.

Grigorian comes from a very demanding series of performances, including Verdi’s Lady Macbeth. Many times it sounded as if she were shouting to get herself heard over an orchestra. But, there was no orchestra. There was only the very friendly piano playing of Geniušas.

Especially in the first part, her loudness hid much of the beauty of Grigorian’s instrument and distorted the textual meaning of some of the verses. In “The Answer” (“Они отвечали,” opus 21, no. 4), the final stanza sounded like Mamma Lucia uncovering Turiddu’s dead body, while the text was talking about love and beautiful girls. Similar issues plagued all the first part of the program. “I am no Prophet” (“Я не пророк,” opus 21, no. 11) overshadowed the piano line, and left no room for musical subtext whatsoever.

What is particularly concerning to me is how such loudness, full of metal and trill, is used as a sort of a gimmick for audiences. This quality of sound, which in itself is a great achievement in any singer’s technique, is not unwelcome in chamber music. But, it needs to be justifiable in order to be there. Otherwise, it is just loudness for its own sake. For some concertgoers, nevertheless, such overwhelming sound when it rings in their ears, sounds as if they have won the lottery. “Oh! This soprano has squillo in her throat!” Like any opera lover, I do love loud voices. But, in a piano recital I love subtlety even more. I especially love hearing a pianissimo in the highest balcony that sounds like someone whispering a secret in my ears. Nothing like that, unfortunately, happened here.

Illuminating and Interesting Moments

In the second half of the concert, Grigorian found a better balance between her voice and her recitalist persona. She is more comfortable when she presents herself as an impassioned narrator of a story. “The Dream” (“Сон,”opus 8, no.5) showed the best synchrony between her and Geniušas’s piano playing. In the longish “Dissonance” (“Диссонанс,” opus 34 no. 13) they were at their best of the night. The song allows for heavier vocal movements followed by subtle ones. The piano line also has a dramatic quality that suited Geniušas’s personality well. It was, to my ears, the most compelling moment of the night and the last programmed piece. But, don’t worry, there were encores.

Lukas Geniušas was a faithful and solid partner to Grigorian. His solo pieces, however, were fun but a bit alien to the recital’s ethos. In the first part he competently played Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” (in Rachmaninoff’s arrangement, of course). But, what does the pastiche of such a piece have to do with all the lyrical and melancholic songs of the recital? His rendition of preludes no. 12 and 13 (opus 32) was good, though a bit showy of Geniušas’s capacity to dominate the piano. Still, it is not every day one hears a virtuoso playing a prelude that is not the C-sharp minor (opus 3, no. 2).

Although I cannot say it was my favorite recital, the results are more positive than negative. Grigorian has the elements that can lead her to become a good recitalist. These include good and original repertoire choices, and a voice that can be beautiful. Unpleasant voices are often tolerated, even admired in opera. But, in chamber music it is tougher to hide. Maybe a bit more experience, a deeper relationship to the Lieder text, and a month in which she is not singing Lady Macbeth or Salome, might reveal her best song persona. Lukas Geniušas is a promising pianist who also showed great patience while playing. He is a musician that deserves attention. For now, I am satisfied in stating the CD was better than the live performance, and I hope for better concerts in the future from this duo.


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