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Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840–1893)
Eugene Onegin, Lyrical scenes in three acts (1879)
Sarah Walker (mezzo) – Larina; Nuccia Focile (soprano) – Tatyana; Olga Borodina (mezzo) – Olga; Irina Arkhipova (mezzo) – Filipyevna; Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone) – Eugene Onegin; Neil Shicoff (tenor) – Lensky; Alexander Anisimov (bass) – Prince Gremin; Francis Egerton (tenor) – Triquet; Hervé Hennequin (baritone) – A Captain); Sergei Zadvorny (bass) – Zaretsky)
St Petersburg Chamber Choir
Orchestre de Paris/Semyon Bychkov
No recording dates or venues given but recording originally published in 1993
PHILIPS 475 7017 [70:36 + 71:07]

 

What is the secret behind a good Tchaikovsky interpreter? To me it is the ability to catch the elegiac quality of the music without over-sentimentalizing, to pull home the dramatic highpoints without crudity, to breathe the music in long waves without becoming over-affected and balance the orchestra so that the wind-writing, especially the woodwind, gets it due without being too prominent. In other words it is to find the balance between the extremes without becoming bland. It takes some musician to fulfil all of these requirements but I feel that Semyon Bychkov is very close to the mark. I know that many listeners like their Tchaikovsky more heart-on-the-sleeve, but Bychkov shows Tchaikovsky’s heart without carrying it in the open.

His choice of tempos seems ideal and the somewhat stale atmosphere that permeates some of this music, apparent in the orchestral introduction, gets it fair share of fresh air through the lightness of Bychkov’s conducting. When the curtain rises to the first scene quartet for the four women, the rural wind that draws through the garden wipes away any staleness. This is in fact Tchaikovsky at his most extrovert. The St Petersburg Chamber Choir, fresh-voiced and homogenous, are probably superior to most opera choruses, but they seem to be a larger body than the Chamber Choir soubriquet implies. The Orchestre de Paris is of course regarded as one of the great orchestras of the world and with their then chief conductor at the helm they here show why, with silken string tone, rasping brass when needed and the woodwind blended to perfection. The great set-pieces for the orchestra, the waltz at the beginning of act 2 and the polonaise in act 3, display their capacity: the waltz light and airy, the polonaise swift and with the right bounce – one can see the guests at Gremin’s party promenading with a spring in the step. And listen to how Bychkov builds up the climax at the end of act 1 scene 2 (CD1 track 12)! What is a bit of an irritant is the presence of long pauses between the separate numbers. Whether this is the choice of the conductor or the producer I don’t know, but I would ideally have liked them to be more integrated. In a live performance one expects of course applause in several of these pauses but in a studio recording I prefer a more seamless layout.

Apart from this it is difficult to imagine a better conducted performance of this opera, or “lyrical scenes” as was the composer’s own designation, and he is definitely not let down by his singers. On the contrary, whoever was responsible for the casting could hardly have done a better job. For instance there is Francis Egerton’s delectable Triquet, elegant and intimate and extremely well sung and not a trace of caricature. Alexander Anisimov is a warm and noble Gremin, singing his beautiful aria (CD2 track 12) not as a showpiece but with restraint and a youthful timbre that is more baritone than bass – but he has the low notes as well. This is a sympathetic portrait that reminds me a little of Kim Borg on his old DG recording, which was my introduction to this aria.

The women are an unusually strong quartet with Sarah Walker an expressive Larina and veteran Irina Arkhipova turning in an amazingly well sung portrait of old Filipyevna. According to the reference books she must have been around 68 when this recording was made but there are few signs of old age in her voice. Olga Borodina, singing her namesake Olga, is classy casting and one wishes that she had more to sing – her aria (CD1 track 4) is as good as any version I have heard. But of course it is Tatyana that carries the heaviest burden of the ladies and Nuccia Focile is just cut out for the part, singing with an intensity and feeling that go straight to the heart. Her voice is so fresh and youthful and with power in rich supply for the emotional highpoints. The Letter scene (CD1 track 11), notoriously difficult to interpret through all the conflicting and contrasting emotions, is so convincingly done. Just listen to Who are you? My guardian angel or a wily tempter?, sung with the utmost simplicity and sensitivity. And the long final duet, where she rejects Onegin’s declaration of love, is heart-rending.

As Lensky, Neil Shicoff is that rare thing: a singer/actor with a great lirico-spinto voice which can ring out gloriously at the climaxes, pared with a willingness to sing softly, almost whispering in the most beautiful half-voice. His second act aria (CD2 track 7) is expertly sung. There are very few recordings of it in the same league, and the end is magical, emotional without becoming lachrymose, which he sometimes has been in other roles. Elsewhere in the opera he is also very convincing, both lyrically and dramatically, not least in the venomous exchanges with Onegin during the ball at the Larin’s house. And Onegin has in the young Dmitri Hvorostovsky found the ideal interpreter: manly, haughty, caring and singing with that glowing tone, easily recognisable through the very personal light vibrato. Mazurok, in either of his two recordings, was for many years the benchmark, but Hvorostovsky is even more expressive and flexible. Just listen to him at his outbreak after the encounter with Tatiana at Gremin’s party (CD2 track 16) when he realises that he is in love with her: his voice is literally seething with passion.

Among the versions I have heard of this opera none can challenge this Philips recording and now that it reappears at mid-price it should be snapped up by anyone who missed it the first time around. The sound is everything one can wish for with a believable balance between orchestra and singers. There are practically no stage effects, apart from Zaretsky clapping his hands three times, urging the adversaries to start the duel, and of course the ensuing pistol shot, almost larger than life. The booklet has a transliteration of the Russian text and an English translation, something one can’t take for granted with reissues nowadays. A winner in every respect.

Göran Forsling

see also Review by Robert Hugill

 

 

 



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