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Highlights from Russian Operas
Mikhail GLINKA (1804 – 1857)

A Life for the Czar (1836)
Act 2: After the battle the god of war (Polonaise and chorus);
Act 4: They sense the truth (Ivan Susanin’s aria)
Vladimir Matorin (bass)
Alexander DARGOMIZHSKY (1813 – 1869)

Rusalka (1856)
Act 3: Some unknown power (Prince’s cavatina);
Act 3: What does this mean? (Mad scene)
Mikhail Gubsky (tenor) – Prince
Alexander Naumenko (bass) – Miller
Male chorus
Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893)

Iolanthe (1892)
No, the charms of a voluptuous beauty (Vaudémont’s Romance)
Vsevolod Grivnov (tenor)
Pique Dame (1890)
Act 3: It is close on midnight already (Lisa’s aria)
Elena Zelenskaya (soprano)
Mazeppa (1884)
Act 2: O Marija, Marija (Mazeppa’s arioso)
Yuri Nechaev (baritone)
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873 – 1943)

Aleko (1893)
The magic power of song (Old Gypsy’s Story)
Taras Shtonda (bass)
Male chorus
Alexander BORODIN (1833 – 1887)

Prince Igor (1890)
Act 2: No sleep, no rest (Prince Igor’s aria) (orch. Rimsky-Korsakov)
Act 2: Are you in good health, Prince? (Konchak’s aria)
Act 2: Hey, bring the captive girls here! (Recitativo) (orch. Rimsky-Korsakov)
Act 2: Polovtsian Dances
Yuri Nechaev (baritone) – Prince Igor
Valery Gilmanov (bass) – Konchak)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre Moscow/Alexander Vedernikov
rec. Moscow, November 2005, February 2006. DDD

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During the last year quite a few recordings of Russian opera have come my way, both historical and latter day, both CDs and DVDs, among them several Bolshoi productions. Now here comes a compilation of excerpts from the present generation of Bolshoi artists, recorded less than a year ago in stunning SACD sound, rendering an impressive realism to the performances. The chorus and orchestra, always among the top contenders in the operatic world, are heard in their full glory with magnificent brass and silken strings. The chorus includes excellent voices, less vibrato-laden than earlier incarnations and with a punch that makes the Polovtsian dances really thrilling. I have a 15-year-old recording of these dances under former principal conductor Alexander Lazarev (Erato) and the feeling of deep familiarity and involvement is just as tangible but the present recording has an even greater impact thanks to the sharply etched SACD sound.

I had the great good fortune to hear these forces under their present chief conductor Vedernikov a little over a year ago, at Dalhalla, on the company’s first ever visit to Sweden and was greatly impressed. Then it was Puccini’s Turandot; here we have them in more home-grown repertoire. The choice of items seems to have been made to give a picture of the development of Russian opera in the nineteenth century: Glinka, Dargomizhsky, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov presented in chronological order. The four numbers from Borodin’s Prince Igor, constituting the second half of act 2, have been tugged out of the chronology to make a thrilling end to the programme.

I have already praised the chorus and orchestra and Alexander Vedernikov - not to be confused with the imposing bass singer during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s - leads his forces idiomatically. Isolated pieces like these can’t tell us everything about his large-scale capacity but his handling of the Puccini score at Dalhalla last year left no doubts that here is an important opera conductor. The opening number, the Polonaise and chorus from A Life for the Czar, is a real cracker that should be a favourite at any concert with opera choruses. By the way, do they exist nowadays?

The disc also gives us the opportunity to hear a handful of singers from the present generation. As usual there are several fine basses on display, among whom Kiev-born Taras Shtonda is the most well-known with a number of fine recordings to his credit. He sings the old Gypsy’s song from Rachmaninov’s Aleko and confirms the good impression from other recordings with his beautiful and warm delivery. Vladimir Matorin also sings well in Susanin’s aria from A Life for the Czar. He can’t quite compete with Mark Reizen or Evgeny Nesterenko on two complete sets I have reviewed recently, but he is an impressive bass even so. Even more involving is Valery Gilmanov as Konchak in Prince Igor – a big-voiced expressive singer. The two tenors are good though not exceptional and Elena Zelenskaya is a somewhat occluded Lisa in Pique Dame. The baritone Yuri Nechaev, however, who sang the small role of The Mandarin at Dalhalla, turns out to be a major artist. His Mazeppa is excellent, maybe not in the Leiferkus or Putilin class, but not far behind and he is a really imposing Prince Igor.

There is an essay on the music in three languages and several fine colour photos from Bolshoi stagings but no texts. Playing time is generous and I wouldn’t mind a second issue, covering operas that are not included here and giving another opportunity to hear some of these singers again and maybe some others from the Bolshoi roster.

Göran Forsling


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