BARGAIN OF THE MONTH
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 - 1975)
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District (1934)
Aage Haugland (bass) - Boris Timofeyevich Izmailov; Philip Langridge (tenor) - Zinovi Borisovich Izmailov; Maria Ewing (soprano) - Katerina Lvovna Izmailova; Sergei Larin (tenor) - Sergei; Kristine Ciesincki (soprano) - Aksinya; Heinz Zednik (tenor) - Shabby Peasant; Romuald Tesarowicz (bass) - Priest; Anatoly Kotcherga (bass) - Police Sergeant; Johann Tilli (bass) - Sentry; Carlos Alvarez (baritone) - Officer; Elena Zaremba (mezzo) - Sonyetka; Kurt Moll (bass) - Old Convict; Aage Haugland (bass) - Ghost of Boris
Orchestre et Choeurs de l’Opera Bastille/Myung-Whun Chung
rec. Opéra Bastille, Paris, February 1992
Synopsis in three languages in the booklet but no libretto
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 9118 [79:13 + 76:19]
Initially this opera was quite popular, in spite of the partially quite advanced musical idiom and the debatable morals in portraying a murderess so sympathetically. It was not until two years after the premiere that Pravda, the Communist party’s organ, published an anonymous article - sometimes ascribed to Stalin himself - which condemned the work on both moral and musical grounds. ‘Chaos instead of music’, said the article and the opera was banned in the Soviet Union for more than thirty years. Shostakovich revised it in the early 1960s and that version, now entitled Katerina Izmailova, was premiered on 26 December 1962. Officially at least Shostakovich preferred the revised version but after his death the original work has become more or less the standard version. There have been recordings of the revision, among them a video from 1966 with Galina Vishnevskaya in the title role but then the classic recording of Lady Macbeth was for a long time the EMI set from 1979, conducted by his longstanding friend Mstislav Rostropovich and with Vishnevskaya again as Katerina, Nicolai Gedda as Sergey and the Bulgarian bass Dimiter Petkov as Boris and an impressive international cast in the many big comprimario roles. I acquired the LPs when first issued and have cherished them ever since. About a year ago I reviewed a DVD from Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (see review) which was visually exciting and sported several good actors and singers - best of all Vladimir Vaneev as Boris - but was seriously let down by the singing of the title role. It is still worth seeing for the intensity and realism.
I missed this DG set when it first came out, and that is something to regret since it is a worthy alternative to the 1979 Rostropovich. Rostropovich made his recording in London with the LPO and the Ambrosians, Chung in Paris with the forces of the Opéra Bastille. Both are superb in every respect and though Rostropovich as the hyper-romantic excels in details and myriad nuances, Chung with his more sober approach is just as convincing and misses nothing of the raw power of this patchy but fascinating work. The differences are the fruits of different temperaments, not different artistic qualities.
Comparing the casts it is difficult to single out one in preference of the other. Like her husband Vishnevskaya was a close friend of Shostakovich and had probably studied the title role for the composer when the 1966 video was recorded, so the authenticity cannot be questioned. It has to be said that the manuscript of the 1934 original never appeared until three years after Shostakovich’s death but the title role differs very little between the two versions. Maria Ewing is however one of the great singing actresses of the last 25 years and her portrait of Katerina is just as involved, even more vehement at times and she sounds younger, closer to Katerina’s supposed age: Vishnevskaya was well over fifty when she recorded the role, Ewing just past forty. Sergei Larin was perhaps the best ‘Russian’ - he was born in Latvia and studied in Lithuania - tenor of the period and it says a lot for his prowess that he is not second best to Nicolai Gedda, who without doubt was the foremost tenor in Russian repertoire during the whole post-war era.
The magnificent Norwegian Aage Haugland - who was the sergeant in the Rostropovich set - is a larger-than-life Boris, depicting this one-dimensionally evil character to perfection. He also shows in his monologue about ageing (CD 1 tr. 11) - one of the few examples of humanity in this opera - that he can be an expressive artist in restrained circumstances as well. Dimiter Petkov for Rostropovich is excellent too in a less grandiose way.
There is a great need for good basses in this opera and each set is lucky in this respect with the great Kurt Moll making a memorably warm portrait of the Old Convict in the last act. Philip Langridge is an expressive Zinovy, Heinz Zednik a lively Shabby Peasant. Both these tenors were for many years world-leading character singers. Elena Zaremba should also be pointed out as a dramatic Sonyetka in the last act, more overt than Rostropovich’s Birgit Finnilä.
From the above readers may already have concluded I have great difficulties picking a winner. It looks like a dead heat. If in the last resort I remain loyal to the Rostropovich recording (now in EMI’s GROC series see review) this is just as much for the long acquaintance with it as the possible greater authenticity, though with Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya as central figures this factor can’t be disregarded. Anyway I am happy to have access to both recordings. They complement each other admirably.
Chung with his more sober approach is convincing and misses nothing of the raw power of this patchy but fascinating work.