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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
The Miserly Knight Op. 24 - an opera in three scenes (1906)
Libretto from the 'Little Tragedy' by Alexander Pushkin
Prelude [7:43]
Scene 1 In the Tower [17:33]
Scene 2 In the Cellar [22:56]
Scene 3 At the Palace [12:12]
The Baron - Mikhail Guzhov (bass)
Albert, his son - Vsevolod Grivnov (ten)
The Duke - Andre Baturkin (bar)
Jewish Moneylender - Borislav Molchanov (ten)
Servant - Vitaly Efanov (bass)
Russian State Symphony Orchestra/Valeri Polyansky
rec. Grand Hal, Moscow Conservatory, Oct 2003, DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 10264 [60:30]


How many operas and other musical works have been inspired by the writings of Alexander Pushkin? The number must be vast and here is another - one of Rachmaninovís three early stage works. With minor parings and adjustments Rachmaninov used the whole of Pushkin's drama.

The scenes of the Miserly Knight flow as a whole. There is little feeling of set-piece arias linked by hum-drum. The sense of narrative is strong as perhaps was to be expected from the composerís director role at the Bolshoi.

The plot. The Baron is a miser and Albert, his son, lives in shame of his father's tight-fisted reputation. There has been a jousting competition and the Count has had his helmet damaged. In scene 2 the Baron visits the crypt of the castle to add to his treasury of gold: power is wealth no matter what grief it may have cost. The damask musical drapes of this part of the score conjure the subterranean gloom in tones familiar from the first movement of the Second Symphony. The Baron then contemplates his mortality and fears his thriftless son will exhaust his treasure when he is in the grave. Albert asks the Duke to reason with his father so that he will change his ways. Things come to a head when Albert overhears the Baron suspecting Albert of being out to murder him. Albert challenges his father to a duel. The Duke, horrified at this conflict between son and father, banishes Albert. The Baron is at last mortified by his absorption in worldly goods. Burning with shame, he falls dead.

Neeme Järvi reigns in isolated supremacy when it comes to complete cycles of Rachmaninov's three early operas: we leave out of the reckoning the shards and shreds of Mona Vanna recorded on another Chandos CD. I am guessing that the present disc is not a one-off event and that Polyansky will also record the other two: Aleko and Francesca da Rimini. If so he will be doughty competition for Järviís set.

This Chandos disc is a fine entry into the lists. Polyansky, at one time given to a rather torpid approach in his Chandos cycle of Glazunov symphonies, here strikes a better balance. The Prelude broods and yet there is a vibrancy in the subservient instrumental lines. His vocal team, all men (there are no female roles in this opera) are uniformly robust. Grivnov is cast from strength and has one of those lean, resinous and rock-steady Atlantov-style heroic Russian voices. Molchanov's more nasal and wheedling style suits the caricature Moneylender role.

The writing recalls Rachmaninov's Second Symphony pretty frequently and there is also a confidently strong, occasionally hysterical, Tchaikovskian presence. The wild-eyed tension rattles along in terms familiar from the finale of Tchaikovsky 4. The grim ending of the opera is typical of the tormented Tchaikovsky.

Compared with Järvi on DG this Chandos version has a greater aural presence and grip; not that there is much between the two. True to form, Järvi is quicker at 58:35 and he has a vocal team as good as Polyansky's. They are Sergei Aleksashkin (Baron), Sergei Larin (Albert), Vladimir Chernov (Duke), Ian Caley (moneylender) and Anatoli Kotscherga (servant).

If you wanted to explore Rachmaninov's trio of operas thoroughly you would not be at much of a disadvantage if you moved promptly to pick up the bargain price DG-Universal Trio set. They are on 477 041-2 minus librettos or as a full price single CD of The Miserly Knight with libretto on 453 454-2. In this Trio box all the operas are offered at a very attractive price. The only substantial demerit in the Järvi box option is the omission of the librettos. Chandos, on the other hand, do their usual Cadillac of a job by providing plenty of context notes and the full sung libretto is in Cyrillic. Itís a shame that its only in Cyrillic although of course there are parallel translations into German and English. A transliteration would have been better for non-Russian speakers. The DG single discs give the transliterated text rather than the Cyrillic which, after all, is impenetrable for the most westerners. DG also give English, French and German translations.

DG also score negligibly by providing four tracks just like the Chandos but each is indexed with a total of eighteen index entries for the whole work as against Chandosís bare four tracks. It's not much of an advantage because so few of us have machines with the facility to move around index entries.

If you demand the full package with complete text and the current ultimate in sound quality this is the version for you. Anything less and you would be well advised to go for the superbly characterised and dramatised DG set.

Rob Barnett

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