Aureole etc.

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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Nicolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Christmas Eve – Opera in Four Acts (1895)
Tzarina – Ludmilla Legostayeva (mezzo-soprano)
Mayor – Sergei Migay (baritone)
Chub – Sergei Krasovsky (bass)
Oksana – Natalya Shpiller (soprano)
Solokha – Natalya Kulagina (contralto)
Vakula – Dimitri Tarkhov (tenor)
Panas – Vsevolod Tyutyunik (bass)
Clerk – Sergei Streltsov (tenor)
Patsyuk – Alexei Koroliov (bass)
Devil – Piotr Pontryagin (tenor)
Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir/Nikolai Golovanov
Recorded 1947
LYRICA 1096-2 [2 CDs 134.55]


Composed immediately before Sadko, Christmas Eve (Noch’ pered Rozhdestvom) was based on the Gogol story that Tchaikovsky had used for Vakula the Smith (Cherevichki). For all the charm and brimstone, for all the lush orchestration and the stentorian devilish rants, Christmas Eve succeeds mainly in demonstrating the relative limitations implicit in the musico-scenic fantasies by which Rimsky was so greatly taken. Following May Night, Snow Maiden and Mlada Rimsky thought to complete the "Solar Cycle" with Christmas Eve but its composition in 1894-95 overlapped with the beginnings of interest in Sadko, a project that seemingly absorbed him far more. Indeed the St Petersburg première of Christmas Eve was boycotted by Rimsky, furious that the royal family had insisted on foisting changes on it. Its reputation has scarcely recovered but if anyone was going to breathe life into it Golovanov was the man. Recorded in 1947 with a strong cast this Lyrica double (from the Aura stable) comes with a number of limitations for Anglophone, indeed non-Italian speakers – there are no notes whatsoever and the booklet consists merely of an Italian libretto. It’s as well to detail these potential bars to enjoyment at the outset.

In the Introduction we are introduced to Rimsky’s delightful amalgam of lush orchestration, and an antiquarianism jostling with Wagnerianisms to particularly glistening effect (via those Russian horns). The sound is splintery post War and boxy, quite raw and one dimensional without spatial depth - but you won’t find it oppressive. The introduction is full of incipient fantasy (horns joined by harp, setting up intimations of Rusalka – Rimsky of course had dealt with the myth earlier in May Night) and some nestling percussion and burnished strings cultivated by Golovanov’s energetic, bristling baton. Of the singers Kulagina is strong if strident, Pontryagin has a prominent tenorial vibrato – though these seem not inappropriate given the slashing viola support and blazing Scheherazade orchestration of their opening scene in which Natalya Kulagina’s Solokha meets Pontryagin’s Devil. Both basses are sonorous in the authentic Russian tradition and play off each other well but Dmitri Tarkhov as Vakula opens somewhat weakly with an indistinct head voice and a bleat lower down. But he develops a lyric ardour later on with real Slavic bite and proves himself an increasingly credible presence in an opera not bristling with much dramatic tension and life; in fact it’s more of a tableau with minimal characterisation and little motivic development, living instead through delightful morceaux and a sense of the unreal for its vivacious life.

I enjoyed bass Sergei Krasovsky’s bleak black parlando in his meeting with Tarkhov as I did the following piquancies of the writing for flute and the elfin impress of the Second Scene in the First Act (Rimsky seemingly taking delight in juxtapositions of tension and orchestration). Whether you will swoon at the sound of the venerable Natalya Shpiller rather depends on your tolerance level for Slavic Soprano Wobble – but she’s certainly got plenty of range and dramatic projection. As befits a work of this kind, where anvil and balladry are never far away, Vakula’s song in the Second Scene is full of delightful folk inflexions and the chattering and vigorous skittering of the Young Maidens who end the Act is conveyed with no little vigour under the sweeping arm of that maestro of monumentality, Nikolai Golovanov.

There are of course many other incidental – if uneven – pleasures; Sergei Migay throws in a good act as the pompous Mayor and the breathless clerk is tenor Sergei Streltsov, full of nasal insinuation in his unaccompanied solo, a good touch. As the Fourth Scene of the Second Act draws to a close we can hear again those Wagnerian motifs and the driving, marching stridency and powerful direction that Golovanov generates (in truth I sense he’s at his happiest in those moments of orchestral reprieve where he can whip up band and choir into a dramatic curve). As a pretty much static work – dramatically speaking – we get more of the same; raw chilling trumpets, chattering wind, shrill choirs, dance rhythms and folk inflexion. There’s a splendid role for the orchestral leader in Act III and some blazing ferocity as the Act draws to a conclusion – especially when the Devils get to work and when the Polonaise Chorus begins to swirl. As the Tzarina, mezzo Ludmilla Legostayeva is introduced with a novelty that hearkens back to the very opening orchestral introduction – as befits her dignity and status Rimsky has her use a very old fashioned and incongruous sounding operatic recitative. Her antique and timeless measure thus established – and with the da capo work for choir as well – and added to them the dark, rich tones of the Cossack chorus the work threatens to come apart at the stylistic seams. Perhaps it does – who cares when the Cossacks are having such stentorian fun. Elsewhere I admired the extended scena for the soaring soprano Shpiller and the orchestral leader, a virtuosic and attractive bit of scene painting and the fine, incisive occasionally overwhelming contributions of chorus and, not least, conductor.

With the limitations as noted, both in documentation and recording – and also in terms of the work itself – this is so far as I’m aware the only recording currently available (and I can’t vouch that it’s in any way complete). I wasn’t converted to Rimsky’s musico-scenic adventure but I enjoyed the sulphur and the rose petal along the way.

Jonathan Woolf

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