Preiser's mission to
reissue vocal historicals smacks of an incongruous blend of
professional zealotry and bargain basement corner cutting. Choice
of material and processing is unerring but design and documentation
can be spartan.
In the present case
there is no libretto. Instead we get a two page synopsis supplemented
by a track by track listing. Tracking is, by the way, pretty
thorough: CD1: 12, tableaux I-II; CD2: 10, tableaux III-IV;
CD3: 14 tableaux, V-VII.
This ex-Melodiya set
has a classic Bolshoi cast with stars caught in their high noon
or at least rising elevens. Nelepp, Shumskaya, Lisitsian and
Reizen are names to conjure with. They are pictured on p. 7
of the booklet. Their voices here are consonant with their reputations
which, rather than representing a Soviet tradition, carry the
legacy of the Russian Imperial Opera.
Rimsky wrote this Sadko
after completing Christmas Eve. It was premiered at the
private opera house of Savva Mamontov (a millionaire merchant)
when Rimsky fell out with Napravnik at the Mariinsky.
The plot: At Novgorod's
merchant guild Sadko the minstrel sings a song of his fantasy
of sailing a fleet of ships around the world. Sadko is next
seen asleep alongside Lake Ilmen where he
is approached by white swans who are in fact the transformed
female court of the sea king. They include Princess Volkhova
who falls for Sadko and makes a gift to him of three golden
fish. Sadko returns to his wife Lyubava who grieves, when confused
by his magical encounter, Sadko becomes cold towards her. In
a bustle of people at Novgorod pier Sadko claims he can catch fish of gold in Lake Ilmen and proceeds
to do so. Having had a wager on his own success he buys a massive
fleet of ships to live out his fantasy. The money is from the
various dockside merchants: Viking, Hindu and Venetian. He takes
his winnings, gives them back their goods and sets sail. Move
twelve years forwards and you find Sadko becalmed in a still
ocean. He draws lots with his mates and drawing the short straw
dives into the sea to drown. In fact he is taken to the court
of the Sea King where he sings of the beauties of the ocean.
The Sea King is won over and gives the hand of his daughter
to Sadko. She is to become a river and he is to be restored
to his home. A shellfish carries the two to their fate. Arriving
at land the Princess becomes a great river as ordained. Sadko
is joyously reunited with his wife and the long-lost fleet of
ships return home sailing the river that was once Princess Volkhova.
The opera is in the nature of a grand cavalcade, a grownup fairytale
or pantomime. It is part of a Rimskian genre that also includes
The Golden Cockerel and Kitezh.
To the present Russian
version. Nelepp's If I had a hoard of gold (CD1 tr. 5)
is ringingly warm though he is more baritone than tenor. Then
again Shumskaya sings with a lovely buoyant Callas-like grace
in Deep depths ... (CD3 tr. 4) but is darker and with
more chesty vibrato in the exposed solo Terrible broad blue
sea (CD3 tr. 5). Reizen gets his moment as Viking Merchant
in On the terrible rocks .... (CD2 tr. 6). Davidova as
Lyubava has the benefit of the passionate return aria in Greetings,
welcome home my beloved husband (CD3 tr. 13)
The orchestra are never
merely time-serving in this work and recording. For example
their silvery chatter at the start of Innumerable are the
diamonds ... (CD2 tr. 7) and the magnificently towering
blare of the brass in the preface to Ah you have not danced
and My dearest one ... (CD3 trs. 9 and 10). The oboe
solo at the start of Krasovsky's irresistible sleep-invoking
cantabile Strike up your ringing gusli reminds us how
indebted the young Arnold Bax - in Spring Fire and in
The Garden of Fand - was to the
experience of seeing the Rimsky operas. Try also the Deep
depths track CD3 tr. 4). The woodwind at 'tis the celestial
height ... (CD2 tr. 10) are a further reminder of the indebtedness
of Rimsky to Borodin.
Golovanov is another
star in this little firmament and it is down to his heady tempi
that the wild dance that ends Tableau 1 is as abandoned as it
is (CD1 tr. 7). This famously volatile conductor pushes everyone
to the limit in In Great Novgorod
there lives a simpleton.
It's a rollicking and breathtaking massed choral scene.
In Tableau 2 we are
transported from the lavish guild mansion in Novgorod to the shores of Lake Ilmen. The ringing
stability and strength of Nelepp's baritone makes listening
to him a joy even without the benefit of knowing exactly what
he is singing. His melismatic song is hemmed about with enchanting
orchestral effects: the skald's harp ostinato, the welling nobility
of the orchestral introduction and impressionistic flurries
of the lake's watery depths.
A typically generous
and joy-filled melody can be heard in Sadko's Round Song
(CD1 tr. 10) - unmistakably Rimskian treatment around a
quick-kicking song for Nelepp. Further examples are not in short
supply - try City of Stone,
mother of all cities (CD2
(tr. 8) and Is that singing? (CD3 tr. 3).
A sinister orchestral
storm prefaces bass Sergei Krasovsky's aria The moon, golden-horned,
wanes ... and one can look to the section at 1:28 (tr. 12
CD1) for yet another influence of the teacher on Stravinsky
the pupil. It was not only in Kastchei the Immortal that
Rimsky's brilliance imprinted on Stravinsky's The Firebird
or First Symphony. You hear other intimations of The
Firebird at the start of Tableau III (CD2 tr. 1).
I must not forget the
Bolshoi chorus who are much in evidence and not only in thunderous
choral moments but also in breathtaking steady smooth quiet
singing in the decrescendo just after the Shumskaya's solo in
I bow to you ... (CD2 tr. 4).
While the original
recording is more than half a century old it sounds quite respectable.
It is almost certainly from a nicely scrubbed LPs set - at least
going by the evidence of a small cluster of clicks at 3:30 in tr. 12 CD1. Preiser have scrubbed up busy surfaces
and repaired pock damage. They present the ear with a better
than tolerable sound experience.
are not numerous. There is however the Kirov-based Gergiev on
Philips from 1993. I have not heard it but it is bound to have
all the advantages of a modern digital version. I doubt however
that the singing will better that which can be heard here. As
for Golovanov he is an unruly Prospero of a musician who rather
like Stokowski and Beecham rejected the commonplace and found
As an insight into
the most exalted Bolshoi standards as well as a wonderful presentation
of one of Rimsky's most supernatural fantasy operas this takes