I took Russian in high school. My primary reason was that I thought there would be the fewest people in that class. I was right–there were about four of us, and the other three levels of Russian met in the same room, during the same period, and our teacher had to give us assignments and bounce between the various levels.
When I got to grad school, it became clear that my diction skills were definitely better than the average bear’s, and people wanted real help with Russian instead of fake “I-learned-in-high-school” help.
So I spoke with actual experts–Anton Belov among them. He, I must say, is a Russian Diction God. If you have Russian diction question, read his book or check out his art song website. There are multiple books on Russian diction, and each author has his or her own perspective, and I’m not qualified to say what’s right or wrong; but speaking with Anton Belov convinced me to use his approach because he uses IPA with consistency and precision, and because he could hear distinctions that were unbelievably subtle. Amazing.
But when I transliterate for choirs, as I have been doing with the Rachmaninoff Bells for the past few weeks, I compromise. I don’t explain it the way Russians do because they explain Russian diction from a Russian perspective.
As I learned it twenty years ago from Mrs. Meytlis, there are hard vowels and soft vowels, and they determine whether the preceding consonant is hard or soft, except when the consonant changes the vowel. And O is particularly complicated because it changes sound depending on its stress. For example, xopoшo has, obviously, three Os and is pronounced [xə rɑ ̍ʃɔ] in normal speech, but if you slow it down and pronounce it slowly with equal emphasis on each syllable you say [xɔ rɔ ʃɔ]. And when I asked my Russian teacher, “which is it?” she gave me a quizzical look and replied, “they’re the same.” And this may be why Russians disagree on Russian diction.
Then again, in English, we take it for granted that when we say “sing,” “send” and “senior,” the letter N is pronounced three different ways–we only bother indicating two of them in IPA! But Russians describe that third one, saying “there are hard Ns and soft Ns…”
So I compromise. When I transliterate Russian, I use what I have found works for American singers: “yes,” I confess, “there’s a glide but please please please try to get through it as fast as you can and don’t linger on it like you’re inclined to do.”
Because Russians disagree–with each other and with me. But Russian is such a beautiful language for singing. It has so much color and specificity, and Rachmaninoff is so sensitive to setting the text naturally, like speech, the way Bach and Brahms do in German, and Barber does in English. The composer worked to make language part of the music, so it’s worth it for us to do so, too.