This atmospheric song cycle was composed at a composer’s retreat in Armenia, only a few months after The Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, and again for a performer associated with the War Requiem. It was written for the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, and for her cellist husband Mstislav Rostropovich (showing his versatility on the piano), and sets the poetry of Pushkin. In this first cycle for the female voice since A Charm of Lullabies nearly 20 years earlier, Britten exploits the full drama of Vishnevskaya’s voice, composing dramatic leaps (even in the first two notes) and a fusion of power and tenderness throughout. The piano part is enigmatic and nuanced, beautifully written as ever, and sympathetic to the higher register of the voice.
The cycle is not as lengthy as some, only around 15 minutes, and ‘Epigram’ barely lasting a minute. The two longest songs are perhaps the most haunting: ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, with its echoes of birdsong, and the insomniac ticking of the piano in ‘Lines Written During a Sleepless Night’. But the cycle as a whole is highly memorable, getting under the skin long after hearing.