Jacques Imbrailo - Sibelius & Rachmaninov: Songs - MusicWeb International

In times bygone the normal procedure in opera houses in Europe was that operas were sung in the vernacular, which of course was practical for both audiences and singers. The opera companies had their permanent ensembles and the mobility was limited. Of course there were guest appearances also in those days and very often foreign guests sang their roles in their native languages. Sometimes the outcome of this could be decidedly ridiculous when, for instance, in Vienna the French tenor sang the title role in Faust in French, the Russian bass sang Mephistopheles in Russian and the Italian baritone sang Valentin in Italian while Marguerite, the chorus and the minor roles were sung in German. In the last forty years or so the rule in most houses has been to sing everything in the original language which facilitated guest appearances and the introduction of surtitles was a further step towards, let’s call it, universal understanding. This also meant that singers had to be fairly fluent in the big opera languages: German, Italian, French and often also Russian. When it comes to art songs German and French is necessary for recitalists – Russian as well, sometimes – but songs in “minority” languages, for instance those from the Nordic countries, have often been a territory for Nordic singers. Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are so closely related that all three nationalities can have an acceptably good command of the neighbouring languages. Finnish is another matter, not in any way related to the other Nordic languages, and thus many wonderful Finnish songs are reserved for Finnish-speaking singers. The greatest Finnish song composer, Jean Sibelius, wrote however most of his songs to Swedish poetry. Swedish was his prime language and even though he learnt Finnish he was always more comfortable in Swedish.

The reason for this preamble is the fact that the internationally active South-African baritone Jacques Imbrailo has recorded fourteen songs by Sibelius in the original languages, thirteen in Swedish and one, the last of the five Christmas Songs, in Finnish. Having for many years in my professional life been teaching immigrants from around the world to speak as idiomatic Swedish as possible, I am utterly aware of the difficulties, the stumble blocks. Swedish is not an easy language to learn, and one of the problems is the vowel sounds. The letter “u” for instance is a much more forward sound than in most other languages. But this is something Jacques Imbrailo manages very well. Another problem is to tell between long and short vowels. The Swedish “god” – “good” in English – has a long vowel sound and that’s where Imbrailo sometimes goes wrong, but by and large I’m very impressed with his control of Swedish. The single Finnish song On hanget korkeat (tr. 5) sounds even more authentic, bar some vowel sounds, but my knowledge of Finnish is rather rudimentary.

The repertoire is mostly predictable but the inclusion of the Christmas Songs is a certain bonus. To begin with the opus number is misleading. Opus no 1 signals that these are works from his youth but they were composed over a period of several years and most of them are much later than for instance his most famous work Finlandia from just around the turn of the century – written between 1897 and 1913. Of the five songs number four Giv mig ej glans is deeply established as one of the great Christmas songs in both Finland and Sweden. As an alternative version, sung in Finnish translations throughout, I recommend present day manager of the Finnish National Opera Lili Paasikivi’s recording of the most popular Finnish Christmas songs (review). Jacques Imbralio’s readings of the songs in their original vestment is however deeply satisfying.

Of the other songs some of them have been immortally recorded by Jussi Björling, Nicolai Gedda, Kim Borg and others, but Jacques Imbrailo can hold his own against even such keen competition and Svarta rosor (tr. 8) is especially impressive. Säv, säv, susa, often sung by Björling, is also lyrical and beautiful and generally speaking this is very good Sibelius singing. The setting of Topelius’s Lasse liten is especially interesting, since it is better-known in Sweden in another setting.

I have not the capacity to evaluate Jacques Imbralio’s handling of the Russian language, but to me it sounds fairly idiomatic and the singing is as wholeheartedly involved as his excursions into Swedish. Just as in the Sibelius section there are enough favourite songs that would make this a very attractive survey of Rachmaninov’s vocal oeuvre. I was certainly very impressed by his readings of On the death of a linnet (tr. 18), The Children (tr. 20) and the three concluding songs In the silence of the night, Do not sing to me, my beauty and Spring waters (tr. 21 – 23) – favourite songs that everybody loves and that reveal that here is a singer with true insight in this music. A wholly delightful recital and I certainly look forward to his next album. The accompaniments are wholly attractive.

MusicWeb International
12 July 2018