Edinburgh Festival / Mezzo's forte: Raymond Monelle hails a new star from the East

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The Independent Culture
THERE IS sometimes a temptation to make rash prophecies on first hearing a new artist. Some of my predictions have been mistaken; but last Tuesday, at the Queen's Hall, it was impossible not to feel that genius was in the air.

The mezzo Olga Borodina, apparently, has everything. The Russian way of singing has become wearisome over the past year or two: the vibrant, metallic ring, the mesmeric shimmer, the uniform intensity of the voice in all registers, has led one to yearn for gentleness and personal whim. Borodina has all these Eastern qualities, and the gentler ones as well. Where some singers rise to a contrived swell and a melodramatic shout, she dwells with total intensity within the beauty of a melody; where others produce a schooled pianissimo at judicious moments, she colours the voice away into a passionless calm, falling into a disconsolate inwardness that opens up gulfs of sadness.

The voice is a true mezzo, almost the 'contralto' that has disappeared from the platform. She is happier, almost, below the stave than in the rich scarlet of the top register. This made her specially at home in a programme of Tchaikovsky songs, ranging from the familiar 'None but the lonely heart' to the terrible despair of the Op 73 songs, written just before the composer's death.

It was a measure of the singer's insight that she revealed the maladjustment of this unhappy man. His emotional life was fatally crippled: the passion of Alexei Tolstoy's 'It was in the early spring' moves him only to a sort of wimpish nostalgia, and the insomnia of the abandoned lover in 'Frenzied nights' sends him into a Slavic rage of self-conscious gloom.

Throughout, Borodina had the support of a thoughtful and eloquent accompanist in Larissa Gergieva. But it was, perhaps, the intimate, freshly hewn character of the reprises that showed the singer's real greatness, always remodelling familiar phrases in a new guise. Every colour was unique; nothing ever happened twice, and the spine-chilling cold wail of the last song, like a hurt child, was simply a new experience. The temptation remains to give the signal: here is a new giant in the world of music.

The previous day, we were to have heard the American soprano Dawn Upshaw, but since she was ill another St Petersburg product, Elena Prokina, stepped in. Again, the programme was Russian: after a group of Tchaikovsky extracts, there were some very choice songs by Rachmaninov. The singer was nervous and her accompanist, Iain Burnside, had evidently learnt these pieces in a hurry.

Here was the world of the large- calibre voice, the high fortissimos ringing with so many upper partials that you could scarcely hear the fundamental. She found it hard to hold notes in middle volume, always allowing the voice to escape into unwanted highlights. The contrast of two moods, stillness and passion, in Rachmaninov's 'Night in the Garden' was intended but not achieved.

This voice needs to be heard in less nerve-racking circumstances. On this showing, it was just another wearisome East European blockbuster.

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