Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Poem about Aleksey, the Man of God, Op.20 [5.42]1
Song of Oleg the Wise, Op.58 [17.11]2
From Homer, Op.60 [11.42]3
The Mermaid of Lake Switez, Op.44 [16.25]4
Elena Mitrakova3,4 and Tatiana Fedotova3 (sopranos), Svetlana Sizova3 (mezzo), Dmitri Kortchak (tenor),2,4 Nikolai Didenko (bass)2, Chorus of the Moscow Academy of Choral Art, Moscow Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Ziva
rec. details not given but licensed from National Music Publishers, Russian Federation and originally released in 2001
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94495 [51.00]
This is still the only recording in the catalogues containing all four of these cantatas by Rimsky-Korsakov. As such the disc is hors concours. It has been extracted from Brilliant Classic’s compendious box of the complete works of Rimsky-Korsakov issued last year, but has formerly been available as an independent release on Chant du Monde, at which time the booklet included complete translations of the texts in French and English. These have now vanished (a review by James Altena in Fanfare of the complete box complains bitterly about this). In the absence of the words this reissue can only be recommended to Russian speakers or those who can obtain the information elsewhere; neither the texts nor the scores - with the exception of a vocal score of A page from Homer with German translation - appear to be available online. The booklet gives a brief outline of the plot of three of the cantatas (nothing about Aleksey) but this is certainly insufficient to enable those unfamiliar with language to appreciate Rimsky-Korsakov’s detailed setting of the texts.
This is a crying shame, because the performances themselves are very good and the music deserves to be much better known. Only one of these cantatas, The Song of Oleg the Wise, has ever been available before, as a filler for Boris Khaikin’s recording of the Rimsky-Korsakov First Symphony on a Melodiya LP from the 1970s but which has long disappeared from the catalogues. I cannot imagine that the old performance, presumably in fairly execrable sound, could have bettered this one to any great extent. There is also now a historical live performance conducted by Alexander Gauk, but that is only available as part of ten CD set reviewed on this site by Rob Barnett. There is also now a version of From Homer included in Svetlanov’s six-CD box of Rimsky-Korsakov (reviewed here by Jonathan Woolf) but that seems to have only emerged in 2007, so again it post-dates the original release of this issue. The other two works here have only ever been available in these performances.
The Poem about Alexey, the Man of God is drawn from a passage excised by Rimsky from his opera The maid of Pskov during his revision of the score, and it gets the disc off to a rousing start with some superb singing from the chorus. In The Song of Oleg the Wise Nikolai Didenko is a splendid soloist, although Dmitri Korchak shows some regrettable signs of strain on his higher notes. There are some superbly dramatic effects in the orchestra, and one regrets once again the lack of any information which would explain the motivation for these. In this cantata the chorus (men’s voices only) takes on the role of the narrator, and their singing and the expressive playing of the orchestra are again excellent.
From Homer is a more straightforward setting of the scene in the Odyssey when the hero is shipwrecked and found stranded on the beach by Nausicaa and her maidens. It begins with an extended orchestral prelude describing the tempest which takes up 16 pages in a vocal score which extends only to 29 pages in total. The work is scored for women’s voices only, three soloists and chorus. The orchestra have the lion’s share of the music, and their stormy playing points up the Wagnerian influences - both Donner and the Valkyries have left their stamp on the writing. When the voices enter the Wagnerian tone continues, although it now the Flower maidens whose sound is evoked in the gently drooping chromatic lines. The singing is very good indeed - although we do not get the indicated trill from Mitrakova in the unaccompanied passage at 9.40 - and there is no evidence of Slavonic wobble from any of the sweetly blended soloists. By the way, the title in French is given in the score as A page from Homer, although no French translation is provided; in Russian and German it is simply From Homer.
The Mermaid of Lake Switez reunites the male and female voices of the chorus, but we are not given any indication about the plot of this dramatic cantata other than that it is a version of the story familiar from Rusalka which had been set by Dargomizhky in Russian before Dvořák got his hands on the legend. Again there is plenty of dramatic writing for the orchestra, which is clearly closely allied to the text, but no clue as to what these relationships might be. Dmitri Korchak is no better here than he was in Oleg, but Mitrakova is fine - at least I presume it is her, since the details of who actually performs what in each cantata is ambiguously given, and some of the singers are credited for appearing on tracks where they clearly have no part. The choral singing with its dramatic impetus reminded me somewhat of Elgar in King Olaf - yes, the music is that good.
The lack of texts or translations seriously cripples these recordings except for Russian linguists. I would imagine the diction is clear, and it certainly sounds it. Potential purchasers may like to look around for a second-hand copy of the original Chant du Monde issue, were it not for the fact that it only appears to be obtainable on Amazon at a cost of over £120 (for one copy) or £230 (for others). Does anybody really buy these exorbitantly priced offerings? So if you want these works - and they are all very good - you really have no choice but to buy these recordings, either as a single disc or as part of the complete Rimsky-Korsakov Edition - which the review in Fanfare regarded as a decidedly mixed bag including a number of “deplorable” performances. Then try and find elsewhere the material which you need to enjoy this music properly. The vocal score for A page from Homer is on the invaluable ISMLP site; for the rest, I wish you luck.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
The performances are very good and the music deserves to be much better known.
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