Rachmaninov’s student opera Aleko, based on Pushkin’s
poem The Gypsies, certainly caused a stir at his graduation
in 1892. Supposedly written in just 17 days, this one-acter
is remarkably assured for one so young; that said, some critics
point to a lack of momentum in the piece, and anyone hearing
this Svetlanov performance might well agree. What makes this
version even longer is the inclusion of a narrator, who recites
the verses Rachmaninov omitted. As for the singers, Artur Eisen
– unforgettable in Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony under
Kirill Kondrashin – is cast as the jealous Aleko. The other
roles are taken by relative unknowns, the Russian orchestra
playing under the watchful eye of their then music director.
As I discovered when listening to this conductor’s multi-CD
set of music by Rimsky-Korsakov – review
– he’s notoriously variable; and quite why he adds a narrator
here is a mystery, as it doesn’t add greatly to the proceedings.
For comparison I took down Neeme Järvi’s Gothenburg Aleko,
part of his three-disc set of Rachmaninov operas (DG 477 041-2)
His singers are rather more illustrious, Sergei Leiferkus in
the name part, Maria Guleghina as Zemfira, Anatoly Kotcherga
as her father and, luxury casting indeed, Anne Sofie von Otter
as The Old Woman.
Listening to both versions it’s clear they couldn’t be more
different. Where Svetlanov is measured and almost conversational
Järvi is more thrustful and extrovert. And for all his
quiet intensity Eisen’s Aleko seems a little under-characterised
compared with the more emotive – but intelligent – Leiferkus,
especially in the lovely Cavatina. As for Zemfira there’s absolutely
no competition, Guleghina sweet-toned and steady, far more affecting
– and subtle – than Sergienko in the important Cradle Scene.
As her young lover Järvi’s Ilya Levinsky is also preferable
to Svetlanov’s rather plaintive Grigoryan, notably in his theatrically
distant – but sweetly ardent – Romance. He and Guleghina are
vocally and dramatically well-matched in their duet as well.
As for Svetlanov’s readings of the men’s and women’s dances,
so often included as fillers on other discs, they are a major
disappointment. No hint of gypsy fire here, the females uncharacteristically
demure, the males almost comically macho. Järvi is much
more impassioned, his rhythms supple. He does benefit from a
first-class recording though, full-bodied and dynamically extended;
by contrast Melodiya have given Svetlanov a dry, tizzy sound,
his chorus bright and unvaried.
But it’s the cumulative tension of Järvi’s performance
that’s most impressive, a clearly discernible dramatic arch
that seems to be missing from Svetlanov’s episodic account.
Just listen to that final chorus, Kotcherga simply splendid
as The Old Man, and I defy you not to be moved by the gentle
dignity of this finale. And that’s not all, for Järvi makes
Rachmaninov’s orchestral colours seem more lustrous, the underlying
pulse steadier. It’s a glorious performance of a minor masterpiece,
and I’m afraid it eclipses Svetlanov at every turn.
The Melodiya disc is presented in one of those easily damaged
Digipaks, the slim booklet slotting into a pouch on the inside.
There’s no libretto, but to be fair Järvi’s set doesn’t
have one either; what you do get is an English translation of
the narrated verses, a detailed synopsis and a cued track-listing.
But what makes Järvi’s version even more desirable is that
it’s packaged with excellent performances of The Miserly
Knight and Francesca da Rimini – and all for just
a few shekels more.