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Sergey RACHMANINOV (1873–1943)
Opera Highlights
Aleko, excerpts (1892) [39:51]
Mariana Zvetkova (soprano) – Zemfira; Andreana Nikolova (mezzo) – Old Woman; Boiko Zvetanov (tenor) – Young Gypsy; Alexander Tekeliev (bass-baritone) – Aleko; Peter Naydenov (bass) – Old Gypsy
The Miserly Knight, Op. 24, excerpts (1905) [13:51]
Boiko Zvetanov (tenor) – Albert; Niko Isakov (baritone) – Duke; Plamen Beykov (bass) – Baron
Francesca da Rimini, Op. 25, excerpts (1905) [22:14]
Mariana Zvetkova (soprano) – Francesca; Boiko Zvetanov (tenor) – Paolo; Peter Naydenov (bass) – Lanceotto
Sofia National Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Nayden Todorov
rec. National Palace of Culture, Sofia, Bulgaria, 16-27 May 2005
NAXOS 8.557817 [75:56]

We tend to regard Rachmaninov mainly as a composer of instrumental music, but his oeuvre also includes a not inconsiderable amount of vocal music. He composed seventy songs for voice and piano, the wonderful Vespers and Liturgy of St John Chrysostom for unaccompanied choir, the large cantata The Bells for soloists, choir and orchestra and some other occasional pieces and, in his youth, he also wrote the three operas, from which we have extracts on this well-filled disc. None of them has been incorporated in the standard repertoire, at least not outside Russia, even though they can sometimes be encountered in some adventurous opera houses. They are definitely worth getting to know and there are several interesting features in them, most of all perhaps Aleko, which was composed while Rachmaninov was still in his teens but in many ways it the most inspired of the three.
The orchestral introduction, for instance, has an almost Verdian build-up of tension and Todorov, assisted by his excellent orchestra, handles the ebb and flow of the music impressively. The first class recording also lets us hear the expert scoring. Not bad by a 19-year-old. The two ballet sequences are also splendid creations, Women’s Dance mild and gracious, Men’s Dance dark and bold, towards the end even wild. There is also some powerful choral music, especially in the finale, splendidly sung by the National Opera Chorus.
The fairly short scene from The Miserly Knight, the finale of this one-acter, involves a lot of histrionics and none too subtle shouting and the orchestra seems to be Rachmaninov’s main concern. In Francesca da Rimini, based on Dante, there is again an attractive introduction to scene 2 with nervous strings and woodwind creating atmosphere. The long duet between Paolo and Francesca is full of passion which inspired the composer to write some truly sensual music deliciously scored. The storm music is powerfully threatening and the wild chorus in the epilogue shows that Rachmaninov might have been an important opera composer if he had chosen that direction. All through the programme the orchestra and chorus are on their toes and Nayden Todorov is definitely an opera conductor to reckon with.
I was less impressed by the solo singing. It is true that all the soloists are deeply involved in their characters and also manage to create believable portraits. Also there is no denying the authenticity of tone, the full-bloodedness and the conviction. But there is also a large amount of Slavonic wobble, of hard, penetrating tenor tone, of shrill soprano sounds and a certain wooliness in the deeper voices. Quite the best singer of the bunch is the bass-baritone Alexander Tekeliev as Aleko. His cavatina (track 5) is impressively sung and his large voice rings out thrillingly, while at the same time he is able to colour his voice with softer nuances. The bass Peter Naydenov sounds his age as the Old Gypsy, until one realises that this aged voice belongs to a 26-year-old. There is true dramatic feeling in his narrative (track 2) however, and he is a powerful and intense actor. I was less enticed by the tenor Boiko Zvetanov, who is the most internationally well-known of the singers. Not in the first flush of youth, he is sorely strained in both Aleko and The Miserly Knight, while in Francesca da Rimini the tessitura is considerably lower, which makes him sound more comfortable. Soprano Mariana Zvetkova, rather shrill and unsteady, has some fine lyrical moments and in the exalted love duet in Francesca she surprises with some clarion dramatic top notes.
This issue is valuable for giving the opportunity to hear some substantial chunks from little played operas and at a very affordable price. The orchestra and chorus are excellent and Nayden Todorov exerts a truly inspired and inspiring leadership. The singing is serviceable and in some cases more than that. The conviction and involvement redeem some lack of sophistication. Keith Anderson’s track-related synopsis is a good substitute for the sung texts and translations that, as is the norm nowadays from this source, can be downloaded.
Göran Forsling

see also review by Ian Lace


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