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Alexander BORODIN (1834 – 1887) Prince Igor (1890)
Andrey Ivanov (baritone) – Igor Svyatoslavich, Prince of Seversk
Evgeniya Smolenskaya (soprano) – Yaroslavna, his wife
Sergey Lemeshev (tenor) – Vladimir Igorevich, Igor’s son
Alexander Pirogov (bass) – Vladimir Yaroslavich, Prince Galitsky, Yaroslavna’s brother
Mark Reizen (bass) – Konchak, Polovtsian Khan
Vera Borisenko (mezzo) – Konchakovna
Alexey Serov (tenor) – Ovlur, baptized Polovtsian
Ivan Skobtsov (tenor) – Skula, buffoon
Feodor Godovkin (baritone) – Yeroshka, buffoon
Elena Korneueva (mezzo) – Yaroslavna’s nurse
Antonina Ivanova (soprano) – Polovtsian girl
Chorus and Orchestra of the Bolshoy Theatre, Moscow/Alexander Melik-Pashayev
Recorded in Moscow in 1951
Appendix: Selected arias from Prince Igor
Recitative and song of Galitsky

Sung by Feodor Chaliapin
Rec 16 March 1927
Yaroslavna’s Arioso

Sung by Nina Koshetz
Rec 12 April 1928
Konchakovna’s Aria

Sung by Nadezhda Oboukhova
Rec 1941
Vladimer’s Cavatina

Sung in French by Charles Friant
Rec 1928
Prince Igor’s Aria

Sung by George Baklanoff
Rec 1929
Konchak’s Aria

Sung by Boris Christoff
Rec 5 May 1950
Reissue Producer and Restoration Engineer: Ward Marston
NAXOS 8.111071-73 [75:41 + 58:18 + 67:11]

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The coming into being of this opera was a long and complicated process. Alexander Borodin, who was a scientist by profession and could compose only intermittently, worked on it for eighteen years and when he died it was still far from finished. The greater part of act 3 and the overture was missing and very little of the orchestration was done. It was left to his friends Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov, who had followed his work closely, to finish it. Glazunov completed the third act and wrote down the overture, which he had heard Borodin play on the piano very often and remembered perfectly. Rimsky-Korsakov undertook the orchestration according to the composer’s instruction. The opera was finally premiered three years after the composer’s death to great acclaim at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg on November 4th 1890 and it is interesting to note that only a few weeks later, at the same venue, Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades was first performed.

The opera is in a prologue and four acts, but the third act, the one that Borodin hardly wrote, is often omitted, which is also the case with the present set.

The story is set in 1185. In the prologue Prince Igor and his son Vladimir decide to fight the Polovtsian intruders who are approaching the town of Putivl. In act 1 Prince Galitsky, Igor’s brother-in-law, who is in charge during Igor’s absence, torments and oppresses the people and rapes the women. His sister Yaroslavna tries to restrain him but to no avail. Then arrives news: the Russian troops have been defeated and Igor and his son taken prisoners. In act 2 there is dancing and singing to honour the Khan’s daughter, Konchakovna. Igor is offered an opportunity to flee but refuses. Vladimir falls in love with Konchakovna. Khan Konchak offers Igor freedom if he promises never to attack the Polovtsians again. He refuses again. The act concludes with a great party including the famous Polovtsian dances.

In the third act Igor realizes that he must escape to save his home town from being destroyed. He wants Vladimir to follow him and Konchakovna asks to come with them. When Vladimir refuses, she sounds the alarm and Vladimir is captured; Igor manages to escape. Konchakovna and Vladimir get married. In the last act Yaroslavna laments the destroyed town. Igor returns and the people unite in renewed hope that they will eventually win the war.

It could be stated that the main protagonist in this opera is not Igor, it is the people – the Russian people – and the Polovtsians. This means that the chorus is very important. The prologue and the first scene of act 1 are totally dominated by the chorus, but there are dramatically and vocally taxing parts for the chorus in every scene, not least the Polovtsian dances in act 2. The Bolshoi singers are in their element here with much powerful singing, e.g. tracks 6 and 7 on CD1. Can a Russian mono recording now more than fifty years old really cope with such large forces? Surprisingly well. There is some distortion but in the main Ward Marston has managed to make the old LP pressings sound better than they probably ever have done. The string sound is acceptably warm and once one has accepted the sound there are no obstacles to concentrating on the music. Musically the finest numbers appear in act 2, not only the well-known dances but also the Chorus of the Polovtsian Maidens at the beginning of the act (CD2 track 1). There’s a beautifully sung solo by Antonina Ivanova, Konchakovna’s Cavatina (CD2 track 3) and of course the wonderful tenor cavatina for Vladimir, "Slowly the day has faded" (CD2 track 5). And both Igor and Khan Konchak have their great solos in this act (CD2 tracks 7 & 9). With the experienced Melik-Pashayev leading his home-grown forces we can rest assured that this is as idiomatic a performance as can be heard. The dance of the Polovtsian Maidens in act 2 (CD2 track 2) is vital and played with great precision and the orchestral sound is very acceptable. The Polovtsian dances (CD2 tracks 11 – 14) suffer of course from the aged sound compared to modern recordings, but this is again vivid music-making. We don’t normally hear the dances with chorus which is a quite different experience. The last two minutes is a real orgy.

Most of the soloists are admirable. The men were all veterans but age has affected their voices very little. Who would believe that Andrey Ivanov, who sings Prince Igor, was fifty? His is a high-quality baritone with a light, very quick vibrato, not in the least disturbing. He is heard to good advantage in the prologue (CD1 track 5) and even better in his great act 2 aria (CD2 track 7), which is nobly sung with a fine legato and also a great deal of anguish; he never goes over the top. Konchak’s aria (CD2 track 9) is a perfect vehicle for a good bass with acting abilities. Mark Reizen has both the voice and the histrionic power. His is another masterly interpretation - a true bass with magnificent low notes and a surprisingly baritonal upper register. He was already 56 when the recording was made, but was to have an uncommonly long career and even sang on the Bolshoi stage on his ninetieth (!) birthday. The other bass, Alexander Pirogov, also 50+, is big-voiced in the traditional Russian manner, but even if he roars a lot he can also caress a phrase with the smoothness of silk (CD1 track 8). Possibly the finest performance of all is Vladimir’s cavatina in act 2 (CD2 track 5), sung by the great Sergey Lemeshev. Lemeshev was approaching fifty but his voice was in perfect shape, smooth, velvety, a hint of steel when needed and phrasing so naturally. He ends the aria on a ravishing pianissimo. The following duet with Konchakovna is sung just as well, and since act 3 is missing this is all we hear of him. This is a bench-mark recording.

The two leading ladies both belonged to a later generation of singers. Both were in their early thirties. Vera Borisenko, Konchakovna, has a typical powerful Slavonic mezzo-soprano, but she sings her beautiful act 2 aria (CD2 track 3) with exquisite legato and a fine rounded voice. Her part is also cut short through the omission of act 3. When we first meet Yaroslavna, sung by Evgeniya Smolenskaya, we hear an edgy voice which grates on the ear. However she can also sing long fine phrases in her arioso (CD1 track 14). In her lament, beginning act 4 (CD3 track 1) she is in much better and steadier voice. This aria, with its finely wrought introduction, is one of the highlights.

The competition isn’t too keen. There was a Decca recording with Belgrade forces led by Oscar Danon in the late 1950s. A Bolshoi recording from 1969 under Mark Ermler with a starry cast including Obraztsova, Atlantov, Eisen, Vedernikov and Ivan Petrov as Igor was let down by bad sound quality and a screechy Yaroslavna. Sony recorded it in Sofia in the early 1990s under the late Emil Tchakarov. In the mid-1990s came what must be ranked as the best modern version on Philips with Gergiev and his Kirov (Mariinsky) forces and also a fine cast with Gorchakova, Borodina, Gegam Grigorian as a stentorian Vladimir and Michail Kit in the title role. This is a full version which not only includes the third act but also has an extra aria for Igor found among Borodin’s manuscripts and orchestrated specially for that recording. It costs of course more than three times the Naxos set, which is a very good representation of the work, despite the omission of the third act. Singing and playing is of the first order and the technical side is well taken care of.

A bonus, as so often with these Naxos releases, is an appendix with some of the arias performed by great singers of bygone days. These are, most of them, bench-mark recordings.

Probably no-one has sung – and acted! – Galitsky’s song with more intensity than Chaliapin does here, his voice as ever an obedient and flexible instrument. He was also near 55 when recording the aria.

Nina Koshetz shows what is missing in Smolenskaya’s singing of Yaroslavna’s arioso. She has a warm, evenly produced voice with bell-like, effortless high notes.

Oboukhova also has a wonderful voice, lighter than Borisenko’s. She is actually accompanied by the Bolshoi Orchestra under Melik-Pashayev, recorded ten years before this complete set.

Charles Friant is of course legendary in French repertoire but his version of Vladimir’s cavatina, beautifully sung though it is (in French), is almost unbearably slow.

George Baklanoff has a voice that is similar to Ivanov’s: warm, noble, a true baritone, a little weak at the bottom but he is masterly at expressing Igor’s pain and despair through his ability to colour the voice. What mars his singing is his intrusive "h".

The young Boris Christoff – well, not so young after all, he was born in 1914 – not 1919 as stated earlier – gives a detailed, expressive portrait of Konchak, never missing a nuance. He is lighter of voice than Reizen and hasn’t the rock-steady, pitch-black lowest notes that Reizen produces. Both interpretations are equally valid. Two mastersingers, indeed!

The booklet has a few paragraphs about Borodin and the opera plus some biographical notes about the artists, well written by David Patmore. As usual with these historical issues there are no texts, but Keith Anderson’s synopsis is a substitute, even if it is unusually compact.

All in all then a fine achievement and well worth the modest cost.

Göran Forsling


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