As a rule, Chekhov’s plays end cynically, unceremoniously closing the door on yet another bleak house. The exception to this is “Uncle Vanya,” which offers a rare emotion in the playwright’s repertoire: if not hope, then at least consolation. In the final moments, Vanya and Sonya, both heartbroken, are bent over accounting ledgers. “I’m so unhappy, dear,” he tells his niece. “If you only knew how unhappy I am!” 

“I know,” Sonya responds. “But we have to go on living.” The days will be slow, the nights will be long, and they’ll spend the rest of their lives doing the work of other people without a minute’s rest, she says. And then they’ll die, and look back on the ledgers of their own lives, full of pain and suffering. But then, Sonya says, “then we’ll rest.” She continues: 

“We’ll rest! We’ll hear the angels singing, we’ll see the diamonds of heaven, and all our earthly woes will vanish in a flood of compassion that overwhelms the world! And then everything will be calm, quiet, gentle as a loving hand. Poor Uncle Vanya, you’re crying…I know how unhappy your life has been, but wait a while, just a little while, Uncle Vanya, and you and I will rest. We will, I know we will.”

It’s this part of the monologue that Rachmaninoff sets as part of his 15 Romances, Op. 26, but the composer would have certainly known the preceding lines that lead to such a profound release. He would have known those slow days and long nights where all you can do is weep while tallying your expenses. It’s these images that come up in the sparse underscoring of the song, all guttural chords on the lower half of the piano’s 88 keys. But Rachmaninoff caresses those images with a vocal line that slowly rises up and up like a beatitude, before settling down again—this time with conviction rather than despair. 

Is there a better time than now to hear these words?

Is there a better person than Asmik Grigorian to sing them? 

“Dissonance,” Grigorian’s debut album, comprises 19 Rachmaninoff songs, each exemplifying a sense of internal conflict and chosen jointly by Grigorian and recital partner Lukas Geniušas. “The purpose of dissonance in life is to make one hear the consonances—that beauty and harmony,” Grigorian writes in the album’s introduction, “so one can appreciate them again.” It’s the dissonance, for example, of the entirety of “Uncle Vanya” that makes Sonya’s speech so moving at the end, that offsets it as a beam of hope.

Grigorian and Geniušas are the consonance at the heart of this album. His tendency to sacrifice beauty of tone for a dramatic hammer-chord matches the steely glint that her soprano can take on without undercutting the full-blooded warmth of her voice. There’s a palpable energy between the two on this recording. She unfurls her otherworldly quality—what Barrie Kosky once called “Planet Grigorian”—like a banner; he provides the breeze to hold it aloft. By no means are the songs on “Dissonance” calm or gentle, but Grigorian and Geniušas handle them lovingly. 

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Planet Grigorian, as it happens, is not a sole proprietorship. Asmik Grigorian is the daughter of Lithuanian soprano Irena Milkevičiūtė and the late Armenian tenor Gegham Grigorian. Both took home honors at different International Tchaikovsky Competitions—she in 1978, he in 1982. Both also sang at La Scala, although this would lead to a crisis in Gegham Grigorian’s career: When asked by the Ministry of Culture to cancel his contract for a production of “Boris Godunov” in Milan, directed by dissident artist Yuri Lyubimov, Grigorian initially refused. Following threats to his family, he capitulated. At first, he returned to the Soviet Union; then, despite being barred from travel for his initial refusal to withdraw, he fled. Grigorian wound up in a refugee center in Trieste as an asylum-seeker. He disappeared before he could have his application approved, didn’t sing the production in Milan, and wound up back in the USSR, where he took work in Vilnius. In 1989, he became a regular soloist at the Mariinsky, back when it was still the Kirov Opera, under the invitation of Valery Gergiev

If you’ve listened to any of the operas from Philips Classical’s Kirov Collection, you’ve likely heard Grigorian at the peak of his vocal powers. In the 1995 recording of Borodin’s “Prince Igor,” he’s the eponymous ruler’s son, Vladimir, torn between love and political duty. It’s a temper and temperament that matches his gleaming, slightly burnished tenor. His Act II aria is a sultry haze of seduction and longing for the daughter of his father’s political opponent; his tenor carries a sense of endless summer dusk, one prolonged sigh before a final note that issues a direct command for his lover: “Come!” By the end of the following act, that slow burn of eros has blazed into a tempestuous trio between Vladimir, his love in Konchakovna (a young Olga Borodina), and his filial duty to Igor (Mikhail Kit). Grigorian’s tenor reaches bronzed peaks in the agitated trio where he’s forced to choose, a hint of the metallic glint that catches in Asmik’s voice through similar moments of dissonance. 

You can hear that incongruity between emotional states at full force in his 1993 recording of Tchaikovsky’s “Pique Dame.” As Hermann, the broke and broken man in love with a woman beyond his means, he wears his personal crisis on his sleeve from the moment he opens his mouth. It must be exhausting to live inside Hermann’s head, so inconsolable is he that his ultimate undoing—the accidental murder of a countess; a nighttime vision from her ghost and his unwavering belief in the gambling secrets she reveals; his seemingly spontaneous suicide when that tip turns out to be wrong—it all makes perfect sense. This isn’t overwrought dramatics, but rather the consequence of always having one’s life turned up to 11. 

In 2020, Melodiya—the onetime state-owned music label of the USSR—released an archival recording of Grigorian’s from the ’80s that expands on his image as one of Russian opera’s greatest champions at the end of the last century. In a handful of Italian arias from Verdi, Puccini, and Donizetti, recorded with the Bolshoi Orchestra and Mark Ermler, that full-throated gleam burns as bright as any of the name-brand tenors that were his contemporaries. His tenor is restless, high-octane as it charges through “Di quella pira,” without indulging in maudlin theatrics; his high C comes out as a battle cry, almost a scream. This seems deliberate; while lower than a C, the sustained B of “Vincero!” in “Nessun dorma” is delivered with greater polish and care, the top note of a man vowing love instead of vengeance. It’s the sort of portrait album that only disappoints in that it would be far more interesting to have heard Grigorian in these full roles, navigating their dramatic peaks and valleys with his instinct and intuition. Though who knows what else is hanging out in the Melodiya archives. 

At least one other 2020 reissue from the ’80s: Irena Milkevičiūtė’s own recital album, “Russian Romances.” A lighter soprano than her daughter’s, Milkevičiūtė has an upper register that pings with the same squillo as Edita Gruberová, but with a lower depth that almost reaches the mezzo territory of Borodina. Compare, for instance, “The Lark” from Glinka’s “A Farewell to Saint Petersburg,” to Tchaikovsky’s “Sleep, Poor Friend.” The opening track is about a song between heaven and earth and hovers in those ethereal high notes, as delicate as the young love it depicts. The latter, a lullaby that must have been in the back of Chekhov’s mind as he wrote “Uncle Vanya”—it teems with images of the divine rest found after enduring life’s slings and arrows and the gracious hand of a higher power—is delivered with groundedness and conviction. 

There’s even an opportunity for a side-by-side comparison, in two excerpts from Rachmaninoff’s 12 Romances, Op. 14. The languid and supine “How Fair this Spot” is one of those clarion calls for Milkevičiūtė, one that drops from ethereal to earthy in Grigorian’s interpretation on “Dissonance.” She sounds like the cousin of Lise Davidsen’s Veslemøy in “Haugtussa.” Likewise, Milkevičiūtė’s “Spring Waters” overflows with imagery of streams that signal warmer weather, ready to break through the remaining panes of ice and drifts of snow, underscored by Ričardas Biveinis’s whitewater glissandi. Grigorian teases out the natural tension, but ends a bit more somberly, almost operatically: Young, rosy-cheeked men and women may dance in May, but you get the sense that she’s one of those young maidens, already anticipating heartbreak from a lad. ¶

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