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
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
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
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