Sergey RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Aleko (1892)
Narrator – Vasily Luvanoy
Aleko – Artur Eisen (baritone)
Zemfira – Lyudmila Sergienko (soprano)
Old Man, Zemfira’s father – Gleb Nikolsky (bass)
Young Gypsy – Gegam Grigoryan (tenor)
Old Gypsy Woman – Anna Volkova (mezzo)
USSR Academic Grand Chorus of Radio and TV/Lyudmila Yermakova
USSR State Academic Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
rec. 1990. English translation of Pushkin’s poem The Gypsies included; no libretto
MELODIYA MEL CD 10 01703 [69:21]

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) (also singly). 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.

Dan Morgan

Where Svetlanov is measured and almost conversational Järvi is more thrustful and extrovert.