There is a sense of
privileged listening involved here.
Not because of singers of the calibre
of Nelepp, but because of the man on
the podium, Kirill Kindrashin, a conductor
whose career was cruelly cut short just
as he made it ‘big time’ in the West.
This recording dates
back to 1950 – or thereabouts. 1950
is the date given by the present issuing
company, Great Hall, although I have
variously seen this performance accredited
to dates either side – 1947 and 1952!
This Ruslan was issued on Melodiya,
at least we know that (D 02452-61);
it has previously also turned up on
Dante, I believe, and probably elsewhere.
Still it is a pleasure
to welcome it. Having enjoyed Pentatone’s
state-of-the-art recording of a live
2003 Bolshoi performance (review),
here is another age’s take on the work.
It’s all as Russian as Volga Boatmen
or beetroot borsch. Even the recording
is Russian of its time – sometimes blaring,
brash, sometimes over-crowded, distorted
even, but nevertheless carrying across
the sheer dedication of the performance
from all. The chorus has a ball, and
how gorgeous they can sound, too – try
the very first chorus just after the
overture! There’s a rather alarming
shift in sound perspective right near
the beginning of the Overture (six seconds
in, that close to the start) that precedes
some string passage-work that is rather
roughshod. But the spirit is huge and
the concentration from the players no
less so. The return of the overture’s
main material right at the close of
the opera, now with added chorus, bristles
with energy here.
The cast, importantly,
works as a group as well as individuals,
so the finale of Act 1 works superbly.
In fact all act finales reveal commendable
unity of purpose and only that to Act
3 seems a little under-powered.
Ludmila is sung by
Vera Firsova, light of voice but very
expressive. She sounds young, which
is a definite plus point. She avoids
– albeit narrowly on occasion – sounding
like a Russian Cenerentola! Firsova
can sing this repertoire magnificently,
as evinced by her Act 1 Cavatina. She
languishes magnificently (for a quarter
of an hour) at the opening of Act 4,
and never loses our interest. Her Ruslan
is Ivan Petrov, a great singer as his
Act 2 aria – here CD 2 track 1 – proves
beyond reasonable doubt. His voice is
that of a dark Russian bass that can
convey oceans of sadness, and does.
By the way, the overture’s lyrical melody
comes from the later parts of this aria.
Georgi Nelepp’s tenor
voice is well-known to collectors. He
is, to mention but one famous recording,
Grigory in Golovanov’s Boris Godunov.
His high and clear tenor voice (as Finn)
makes Finn’s Ballad (Act 2) a thing
The amazing Yekaterina
Verbizkaya takes the part of Ratmir.
Verbizkaya is a strong contralto, whose
sense of line is always true and who
shapes contours expressively. Her romance
in Act 5 provides one of the opera’s
The part of Farlaf,
of course, includes the famous ‘Farlaf’s
Rondo’ (CD1 track 8 here). Chaliapin
territory it may well be, but Krivchenya
nevertheless provides a highlight of
the set. His focused voice and sheer
presence are a delight. The Rondo is
fast but great fun, and diction is not
compromised for a split second. Nina
Pokrovskaya is a strong Gorislava, her
voice notable for its cutting yet expressive
grasp is complete. Some of the purely
orchestral moments are memorable, be
it the lilting dances (a great oboe
solo) or the fairy-tale tinkly March
of Chernomor, or the quasi-oriental
dances; easy to see where Rimsky got
of some sonic failings and rather inadequate
documentation this cannot really merit
a first recommendation. Even the synopsis
includes such corkers as ‘Lonely does
sad Ruslan rides (sic) on hosreback
(sic)’. But the performance’s status
as a major document is undeniable. It
widens our appreciation of the art of
Kondrashin, and that in itself is valuable.