Denys Berezhnyi


Jacques Brel covers. Interview with Denys Berezhnoy

Can you give us a brief outline of your career and say who has influenced you most as an artist?

This year it will be the 20-th anniversary since I started writing songs deliberately. In 1987, i.e. when I was 13 I performed on the stage for the first time. Along with performing on concerts I studied on the vocal department in conservatory. An invariant peculiarity of my stile is that regardless of variety of repertoire that includes own songs, modern chamber music, arias, romances, ethnic music, French chanson, thought different orchestras, music groups and rock bands accompanied me I always return to own guitar accompaniment. The more challenging the song is the more thrilling it is to perform it professionally and beautifully by means of only voice and guitar.
I do not feel anyone’s influence because I do not see any analogues of what I do. I can tell you about impressions from my childhood. I was 5 or 6, I was sitting on a carpet at the TV set and admirably listened to singing of Dean Reed. He stays in my memory together with impression from the Olympiad of 80. Handsome, majestic, lonely man with a guitar, so unlike the others, who were listening to his voice somewhere among the wagons of Baikal-Amour Railway. That time or some time later I understood that one can exist on the stage this way only with a guitar and express energy so strong, greater than anyone of the bards known to me. Dean Reed was not a bard, though he wrote himself — he was a singer. His voice was acute, full of American openness, expressive, ruthless to itself. They did not sing so sincerely here — Slav voices are different — deeper. I know that there are some hesitations about Dean Reed’s talent, but now, when I feel a desire to turn back and compare my performance with his, I can say that he was a man-genre, who sang with accompaniment both of guitar and orchestra, and he left unique guidelines, at least for me. Now I sing songs from his repertoire with pleasure.
Years ago we had no opportunity to hear Jacques Brel or Georges Brassens, we were brought up in Russian culture of bard and author’s song similar to them. Now I speak much during my concerts, giving comments on songs. This comes from bard culture. Understanding a piece of music deeply, knowing much about it, some stories about creation and lifecycle, that create a frame for it like for a precious jewel, one intends to tell more about it to everyone, and it’s a pity that there is no opportunity to tell everything, so the presentation turns to be short and excited. In bard culture (for me it was in 80-ies) one kept the audience interested for 1,5 hours with a mixture of songs and stories. Unfortunately, this culture is gone. And now it is difficult to find something like that or create something new. But we need to create, otherwise how live?

How did you come to know of Jacques Brel’s various works?

I have heard about Jacques Brel for the first time from translator, musician, organizer of annual festivals of French chanson in Moscow Alexander Avanesov, who invited me to take part in those festivals, and Irina Olekhova, a poet and translator, was the one who gave me more understanding and knowledge of Brel’s art and other French chansonieres. It was surprising to come to know a whole piece of culture not known to me before. I remember my astonishment and shocks when I revealed to myself new sides of French chanson: I thought nobody has written on this topic, I thought nobody has performed this way, but it turned to be that all that has been done already! and even have been translated into Russian! and is performed!

Which of Brel’s songs are your favourites?

Besides interpretations and translations of “L’ivrogne”, “La quête”, “Amsterdam”, “Ne me quitte pas” which I perform, I like “Ces gens-la”, “Jef”, “Quand on n’a que l’amour”. Though I watch and listen to each Brel’s song with a great interest.

Is Jacques Brel well known in your country?

Only several people know Jacques Brel in Ukraine, it’s not an exaggeration. According to my observation there is polarity: most people have not heard about Brel at all, but those who know are seriously involved in. There is a simple reason for it: Ukraine is a zone of cultural disaster (I quote the name of one of All-Ukrainian meetings), reservation and isolation from the world that is recognized even by famous state actors. People may live a life without hearing the name of Brel: his art is not present in widely accessible sources of cultural information. Moreover, live music, i.e. music performed without phonogram, on acoustic instruments, not transformed by electricity is not popular here. Its best examples are difficult to find. Those who were lucky to know Brel (fist of all through interpretations of other artists) and those who like it deliberately get information from the Internet, and only there. By the way according to official statistics only 2 percent of Ukrainian people use the Internet.

What inspired you to translate and interpret Brel and why did you choose the particular songs you interpreted?

Brel is expressive; his poetry is deep and serious. I will try to cite the words of famous translator Ram Bobrov: “Jacques Brel is one of the most outstanding poets of 20-th century. His versatile, ambivalent performance, first of all as a poet, not as a singer or actor, is the most valuable for the world’s culture”. He brightly expresses his individuality, turns everybody’s attention and keeps it during the whole performance. Of course I like that all along with unusual melodies. It was interesting, like with songs of other authors, to perform his songs in my own manner, like nobody did before. My principle is “Do something that does not exist and that is not possible to repeat”. On the song “Ne brosay menya” (“Ne me quitte pas”). Yes, I used the idea that enthralled me and developed it the way I felt it. It all resulted in a liberal translation or a song “after a song”. I think it is admissible and even necessary to do this with classics (Brel is undoubted classics), it lives this way giving birth to new ideas.
I will better cite a passage from correspondence to the question of interpretation of “Pianitsa” (“L’ivrogne”) translated by Irina Olekhova: “...the end of the song is sung like Russians do, with courage. I did that on purpose! ...Music reminded me tavern (native, Russian, Gipsy) intonations (and the situation is from the restaurant, only French) and I thought — here! That’s the way it shall be — hat to the floor and with growing expression... Of course I tried not to overdo. Wanted to do that not to seem different, but to show that weather in French or in Russian with courage — everywhere the feelings are the same. I did it the way I wanted — the clue, but rather explicit — you have heard!”

Pianitsa (The Drunkard) (“L’ivrogne” Fr. Rauber, G. Jouannest – J. Brel, translation by I. Olekhova)
Video from concert “Jacques Brel. Un Don Quichotte chantant” (Moscow, Theatre Center “Na Strastnom”, October 2007)
Denys Berezhnoy (singing, guitar), Sergey Osokin (accordion), Aleksandr Baydakov (contrabass)

What was the most difficult aspect of translating the lyrics of Brel’s songs?

You better ask professional translators, I am a singer. Indeed, sometimes it is stylistically impossible to preserve French expressions in Russian, some may have influence similar to Brel’s on Russian audience only in adopted form, i.e. modified, but sometimes there appear unique Russian combinations that are worth translating back to French. Here I see the life of the song, its sequel.

What is your opinion of other translations of Brel’s lyrics that have been done in your language?

The variation of song “Ne me quitte pas” translated by A. Rubinin and V. Piankov is interesting, it is very close to source text, you can listen to Vadim Piankov’s performance of it. However mine is more preferable for me. It is interesting to cross the boarders of impossible, this time in humiliation (that is not a humiliation in fact). I wrote about this on my site, here is a reference to the article (in Russian):
I know five poetic translations of the song “Amsterdam” into Russian. I like the translation by N. Panina and Y. Stefanov, but it is better to read, to my mind, and emotional translation by Yaroslav Startsev is better to sing and listed to. There it is clear, why the song is sung, the attitude of the author is expressed and the most important task is understandable.

V amsterdamskom portu (In Amsterdam Port) (“Amsterdam” music and lyrics by J. Brel, translation by Ya. Startsev, edited by A. Avanesov)
Video from concert “Jacques Brel. Un Don Quichotte chantant” (Moscow, Theatre Center “Na Strastnom”, October 2007)
Denys Berezhnoy (singing, guitar), Sergey Osokin (accordion), Aleksandr Baydakov (contrabass)

Some very profound translations of Brel’s songs, unfortunately, was created not for singing, for example “Eti ludishki” (“Ces gens-la”) by Ram Bobrov is a beautiful text, filled with meaning and Brel’s sarcasm, but without musical rhythm.

Do you know of any other artists who have done Brel covers (in any language)? If so, which are the ones that you like the most?

To have any objective or personal opinion, to my mind, one shall have complete information, i.e. to listen to all artists who interpret Brel’s songs, their number exceeds a thousand. I have not heard all of them. I do not think it would be appropriate to mention any famous name; it would not be correct, ethical, and fair as to less famous artists. I am sure there is a singer in that list which would make me cry out: yes, I like that! Maybe he is from distant exotic but poor country, he is extremely talented, but there are no songs of his in the Internet. How to hear him? When I will have more or less complete information at least about 900 artists I will be able to name someone. Now the “stars” usually disappoint me.

Did you find that people you collaborated with were resistant to the idea of interpreting Brel, or were they encouraging?

I can not agree that only Brel can sing Brel’s songs and nobody can sing better. Usually this is an opinion of less thoughtful of his worshippers.

How does your audience react to Brel’s songs?

The audience, that is called intellectual here, and this can be seen from concert records, reacts in and excited manner “Bravo!”, “What a song?! Why have not we heard it before?”; those who are called “elite” make a face and grabs the guns (unfortunately that is true): “You have no talent. Who is Brel? Sing something simpler”.

Are you planning to do other Brel covers in the future?

Yes, I work on that.

Brelitude, “Jacques Brel covers”, 2008.01.07
Dino Gibertoni & Rodolphe Guillo

« Jacques Brel autrement dit ». Interview de Denis Bérejnoï (Français)
“La chanson de Jacky”. Intervista con Denys Berezhnoy (Italiano)
“Jacques Brel covers”. Èíòåðâüþ ñ Äåíèñîì Áåðåæíûì (Ðóññêèé)

See also:
Audio-records of songs in Music;
Video-records of songs in Video

© 2008 English translation by Helga Tarasova

© Denys Berezhnyi,