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Mikhail GLINKA (1804-1857)
Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842)
Ivan Petrov (bass) Ruslan; Vera Firsova (soprano) Lydumila; Vladimir Gavryushov (bass) Svetozar; Yekaterina Verbizkaya (contralto) Ratmir; Alexei Krivtchenya (bass) Farlaf; Nina Pokrovskaya (soprano) Gorislava; Georgi Nelepp (tenor) Finn; Elena Korneeva (mezzo) Naina; Sergei Lemeshev (tenor) Bayan
Chorus and Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow/Kirill Kondrashin
Rec. Moscow 1950(?).ADD
GREAT HALL MVT CD006/008 [3 CDs: 63'50 + 67'40 + 71'27]


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 of wonder.

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 highlights.

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 quality.

Kondrashin’s dramatic 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 it from!

Unfortunately because 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.

Colin Clarke

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