Life & Culture

Music for the journey into motherhood

Soprano Channa Malkin's latest album is inspired by the sleepless nights of new motherhood.


Let’s put it mildly: mainstream classical composers of bygone eras rarely wrote well about motherhood. Nevertheless, the soprano Channa Malkin has unearthed a precious few who did, and is presenting them in a powerful new album. This Is Not A Lullaby brings together songs that explore the experience of being a mother in ways almost disturbingly close to the bone. The music ranges from John Tavener’s Akhmatova Songs to a cycle by the Polish-Russian Jewish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg and the première recording of Five Russian Songs by Joseph Malkin, Channa’s father.

Speaking to me from her home in Amsterdam, Channa Malkin says that this recording could scarcely be more personal if it tried. It all began when her son Ezra, who is now two, was six months old. “I couldn’t sleep after breastfeeding him and I thought I might as well get out of bed and browse through some music,” Malkin recounts. “I stumbled upon these Weinberg songs, Rocking the Child: a cycle that described exactly what I was going through at the time, by a composer with whom I had a lot in common from a cultural perspective.”

She proceeded to build a recital programme around the cycle. “I also wanted to include my father’s songs because I felt they fitted both musically and culturally into the programme. The Tavener I had wanted to do for a long time, and I am a huge fan of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry. I thought this really should be my next album because I wanted to share this music more widely.”

Malkin has dedicated the album to her small son. “I found the transformation to motherhood very intense and quite difficult,” she says. “As amazing as it is, you really change as a person and all of the doubts, the worries and the fears have gone into this music. It’s not just about this holy mother sitting with her baby as if it’s the only job she was ever meant to have!”

Some of the poetry is nevertheless so raw and intense that to sing the words while experiencing the real-life situation might risk complicating the process. “I think it makes it both easier and harder,” says Malkin, “because on the one hand you really feel a personal, emotional connection, which is what you’re looking for; but on the other hand, as a performer you have to distance yourself a little bit so as not to get too bogged down with the real emotions.

“Some of my father’s earlier pieces were based on poetry from the Second World War that was so heart-rending I really had trouble not crying while preparing it. Maybe those projects made me more used to performing music to which I felt emotionally connected and which is so close to my heart.” Joseph Malkin (not to be confused with the 19th-century cellist of the same name) started composing relatively late: he has spent most of his career as a violinist. He was born in Tblisi in Georgia and while studying in Moscow decided to emigrate to Israel. There he met Channa’s mother while both were music students at the Tel Aviv Music Academy. The young couple headed for Amsterdam intending to stay a year, but ended up making their home there; Joseph became a member for 25 years of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Channa’s own musical trajectory started when, bored on holiday as a child, she wrote a song, then entered it for a competition. Next thing she knew, she was singing it on the platform of the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam’s premier concert hall. “What struck me was how much I loved being on stage,” she recalls. By 16 she was having lessons with the Dutch soprano Charlotte Margiono, who helped to instil in her a love of early music, still one of her most important focuses. After winning the part of Barbarina in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro for a production that wanted a very young voice for the role, she was left in no doubt of her future path.

Her father began writing music in 2004, inspired by the poetry of the Dutch-Jewish author Ida Vos. Channa had a hand in that. “I was very into her children’s books and wrote her a fan letter when I was about eight,” she says. “She wrote back — then became a great family friend.” Since then, Joseph Malkin has written numerous vocal and instrumental works; his daughter has premiered many of the former.

Weinberg was born in Poland around the same time as Malkin’s grandparents and, like them, fled the Holocaust eastwards, ending up in Moscow, where he became a close friend of Shostakovich. His music was not particularly well known beyond the Iron Curtain; thanks to the advocacy of Gidon Kremer, word began to spread, and now he is gradually becoming, at last, a household name. In Rocking the Child, with poetry by Gabriela Mistral in Russian translation, he can create more meaning with one soprano and a thread of piano accompaniment than some composers achieve in a whole symphony. “That highlights the intimacy of the theme,” says Malkin. “It’s like you’re in the room with the mother and baby, witnessing it, being part of the situation.” As for the Tavener Akhmatova Songs, for Malkin this represents the third part of the journey of motherhood: rediscovering her own self.

Malkin’s album finds her collaborating with the pianist Artem Belogurov in the Weinberg and Malkin cycles and the cellist Maya Fridman in the Tavener: “We have a wonderful musical connection and I’m very happy to have recorded with them,” she says.

She hopes the tour which fell victim to Covid-19 lockdown will eventually reappear; likewise that of a very different idea, Handel goes Tinder — a project she devised bringing together some of Handel’s operatic arias for different characters in an imaginary dating scenario.

At home, she and her husband, a strategy consultant, continue to identify culturally with their Jewish heritage. “As Ezra grows up, we’re looking forward to celebrating the holidays with him,” Malkin says. In the locked-down meantime, she notes: “I have my own curfew. His name is Ezra.”

Channa Malkin’s album This Is Not A Lullaby is released on May 7 on the TRPTK Reference label

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