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Mikhail GLINKA (1804-1857)
Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842)
Ruslan - Taras Shtonda (bass)
Lyudmila - Ekaterina Morozova (soprano)
Svetosar - Vadim Lynkovsky (bass)
Ratmir - Alexandra Dursenova (contralto)
Finn - Vitaly Panfilov (tenor)
Gorislava - Maria Gavrilova (soprano)
Farlaf - Valery Gilmanov (bass)
Bayan - Maxim Paster (tenor)
Naina - Irina Dolzhenko (mezzo soprano)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow/Alexander Vedernikov
Recorded 23-17 April 2003, Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow
PENTATONE PTC 5186 034 [3CDs: 64.54 + 64.42 + 73.56]


Tchaikovsky described Glinka as ‘the acorn from which the oak of Russian music sprang’. While he is rightly regarded as ‘the father of Russian music’, Glinka would never have become the important figure he was unless he had traveled widely and gained a musical education as a result. For example, he studied for three years in Italy after 1830, meeting Bellini and Donizetti, and then moved to Berlin, where he continued his studies before returning to Russia. His compositional technique was advanced by virtue of these experiences.

If Glinka’s first opera, A Life for the Tsar (1836) was an historical epic, his second, Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842) is a brilliant fairy tale. The plot generates an oriental flavour and there is a tendency towards folksong too. However, the celebrated overture, which through its popularity in the concert hall is Glinka’s best known composition, only gives the merest hint of the nature of the opera that follows. For one of Ruslan and Lyudmila’s most striking features is its harmonic boldness.

In Act II the hermit Finn tells of the mighty sorcerer, the dwarf Tchernomor, whose musical motto becomes a whole tone scale which has a potent presence for the remainder of the opera. There is also much reliance on folk music, with its directness and essential simplicity, with a tendency to insist upon repetition. Indeed it is a feature that gives the music its nationalist style.

Vedernikov and his Bolshoi forces are captured in an excellent performance with good sound. The discs result from live recordings but with very well behaved audiences. This opera has never established a position in the international repertory, and when it has made its way there have usually been sundry cuts because complete editions are hard to come by. As the booklet notes tell us in some detail, this recorded performance tries to be as complete as possible. There have been other recorded performances in recent times, conducted respectively by Yuri Simonov (Melodiya) and Valery Gergiev (Philips), but this new version is at least a match for them, and in many respects is better.

The recorded sound allows for details to be heard in most scenes; only the rather distant placing of the chorus in the sound perspective gives cause for complaint. The orchestral playing if first class, allowing due emphasis and credit to be placed upon Glinka’s achievement in this aspect of composition. Due credit needs to be given to the conductor, Alexander Vedernikov, for his attention to detail in bringing details of say, woodwind parts through in such a clear and natural way. The Overture suggests that he will be fond of fast tempi, and this proves to be generally true.

The cast give performances as idiomatic and committed as the Bolshoi pedigree would lead us to expect. Valery Gilmanov gives a virtuoso rendition of Farlaf, and Ekaterina Morosova tackles the Italianate coloratura of Lyudmila’s vocal line with enthusiasm, though she does not always manage to be convincing as far as accuracy is concerned. No matter, however, because the spirit of her performance is so right.

The role of Ruslan is taken by Taras Shtonda, not an internationally known singer, but an artist of great sensitivity and of secure technique. He makes his character seem warm hearted and attractive, and he has a marvellous sense of lyrical line in his solo scenes. As the hermit Finn, Vitaly Panfilov has a slender and light tenor voice, but this is just what is required when he gives out has narration to a background of dazzling orchestral sound. The other female roles, sung by Maria Gavrilova and Alexandra Durseneva, are beautifully sung too. The latter takes the part of Ratmir, a travesty role to emphasise the character’s youthfulness and his romantic interest in the various Persian maidens he encounters.

The booklet is substantial and well produced, though the synopsis of the story line is a little thin and there should have been more information about the interesting historical background of the opera. On the credit side, there are full texts and translations from the Russian into English, French and German.

Terry Barfoot

See also review by Colin Clarke


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