I wanted to post Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, but I had a hard time finding a singer whom I thought could do it justice. So many recording are out of tune. I finally settled on Kiri te Kanawa. She presses the air from time to time, making the piece sound somewhat harsh, but in total, she does a good job with it. The melodic line of this piece has been adapted to many different instruments, but it was written for the voice, and that is what you will hear.

Vocalise, opus 34, no. 14

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Born in Oneg near Novgorod, Russia, April 1, 1873; died in Beverly Hills, California, March 28, 1943

Sergei Rachmaninoff was one of music’s most inspired melodists. His piano concertos burst with surging, soaring melodies, such as the glorious 18th variation of his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. And alongside his instrumental works, he poured his lyrical gift into some 80 songs, whose popularity is only limited by their being in the Russian language and thus off-limits to many prominent international singers.

One that is not hampered by language is the exquisitely beautiful Vocalise that closes his set of 14 songs, opus 34, for it is a wordless composition for soprano, sung mostly on the vowel sound “Ah.” It was written in 1915 for the coloratura soprano Antonina Nezhdanova, a star of the Moscow Grand Opera, and when she objected to the lack of a poetic text, the composer gallantly replied: “What need is there of words, when you will be able to convey everything better and more expressively than anyone could with words by your voice and interpretation?”

After Vocalise was premiered in Moscow by Nezhdanova and Rachmaninoff in January 1916, Nikolai von Struve suggested to the composer that he orchestrate the work. Rachmaninoff promptly responded with arrangements for soprano and orchestra and for orchestra alone, and it is these versions that are most often heard today.

Written in a minor key, like so many of Rachmaninoff’s best pieces, Vocalise has a melancholy undertone that reflects the composer’s dark mood at this time, as Russia struggled through World War I and hovered on the brink of revolution. Its opening melodic phrase is an artfully disguised version of the ancient “Dies Irae” (“Day of Judgment”) plainchant theme for the Requiem Mass for the Dead; this grim musical idea was a recurring motif throughout much of Rachmaninoff’s music. But the effortless, unending flow of melody — unfolding in beautiful, arching phrases — triumphs over the sadness.