It seems remarkable that Sorochinsky Fair
is not heard more often. Mussorgsky is a recognized giant of operatic history, and this opera, rich in comedy and characterization, has as much melodic vitality as Carmen
or Il Trovatore.
In other respects, though, Sorochinsky
’s position on the outer fringes of the repertoire can be explained, and excused, by the fact that it is in large part an editorial construction. It is to opera what Anthony Payne’s reconstruction of Elgar’s Third Symphony is to the symphony.
When Mussorgsky died in 1881, Sorochinsky Fair
was still very, very far from complete, with large sections not composed at all and considerable uncertainty concerning the intended organization of the fragments he had left (none of them orchestrated). Crucially, Rimsky-Korsakov, who confidently completed Mussorgsky’s much more finished Khovanshchina
(premiered in 1886), and served as his former room-mate’s general musical executor, decided against any attempt to work Sorochinsky
into a performable shape. At some point after 1894 he entrusted at least some of the manuscripts to Anatoly Lyadov, a composer with no experience of writing opera and so notoriously slow in his working habits that it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Rimsky regarded this as a way of ensuring that Sorochinsky
would never reach the stage, at least in his lifetime. Indeed it was only with Rimsky’s death in 1908, when Mussorgsky’s reputation was riding very high, that the ‘lost’ opera achieved a near-legendary status. Lyadov had, predictably, done very little with it. The stage was finally set for attempts to complete and perform Sorochinsky Fair
Five such attempts were made in the following quarter century, the first being premiered in 1911 and the last in 1931. They represent a steady movement towards the fulfilment of two rather incompatible goals: the production of an all-sung opera suitable for staging and the creation of a score as faithful to Mussorgsky’s manuscripts as possible. The last of the five, a reasonably scholarly completion and orchestration of the opera by Vissarion Shebalin, became accepted as the definitive performing edition. Though the most authentically ‘Mussorgsky’, authenticity here comes at a price, for the Shebalin edition reveals all too clearly that the composer had not finished working out his story. When, at the very end, the Gypsy conveniently steps forward to wrap things up with a ‘And now, girls and fellows, / Forget your feet, dance the Hopak’ one feels he might just as well add ‘And now, dear audience, / Forget loose ends, enjoy our dance’. Nevertheless, one readily makes allowances given the delightfulness of Mussorgsky’s underlying conception. It is much to be regretted that he did not live to complete a work that could have been to the Russian repertoire what The Bartered Bride
is to the Czech.
Until recently, Sorochinsky Fair
was known in the West mainly through the medium of two fine recordings which, though long out of print, have been easy enough to acquire second hand. The first of these was a Melodiya LP, using the title The Fair at Sorochinsk
, released in 1972; it features Yuri Ahronovitch conducting Moscow Radio forces. The second was originally released in the Soviet Union in 1984, again on Melodiya, but reached the West in the form of an Olympia CD (OCD114) in 1988, now entitled Sorochinsky Fair
. Here Vladimir Esipov conducts the chorus and orchestra of the Stanislavsky Theatre.
There is not a great deal to choose between these two recordings, but I give the palm to the latter, which has more comic gusto and includes music (from Act 3) cut in the earlier release. When it comes to packaging, though, the balance swings the other way. The 1972 LPs came with a superb booklet containing a useful introductory essay by James Ringo and a complete libretto transliterated and translated by Valeria Vlazinskaya. The Olympia release included a shortened, prose translation of the libretto - with no transliteration of the original - that is full of mistakes, omits several sections completely, and also, weirdly, includes a scene which is not sung and not in the Shebalin edition of the score; I presume it comes from one of the earlier completions of the opera. For anyone not able to follow the mixture of Russian and Ukrainian in the libretto, but wanting to understand the opera in depth, Vlazinskaya’s translation of the libretto remains indispensable.
This last point should be strongly emphasised in relation to the two newly available recordings under review here. Each includes merely a brief summary of the story and no libretto, and both summaries are rather unsatisfactory. The Pristine Audio release comes with the summary from Wikipedia, which, following Mussorgsky’s most developed plan for the opera, includes the ‘Night on the Bare Mountain’ episode as an intermezzo between the first and second acts. By contrast, in the Shebalin edition, which is the one on the recording, this episode appears in Act 3. The Brilliant Classics set includes a summary of the original Nikolai Gogol story on which the opera is based rather than of Mussorgsky’s libretto. This admittedly makes the plot more comprehensible, but anyone attempting to work out what is happening in the music with such a guide will swiftly despair. In both cases, though, the listener is given lamentably little support in following an opera which is rich in dialogue and full of a broad humour that can be sensed, but hardly understood, without knowledge of what is being sung.
The Pristine Audio release has actually been available since 2010, but following an apparently unwritten rule that each new release of the opera should spell the title differently, this particular version – Sorochyntsi Fair
– proved more than web search engines could handle, and it has gone largely unnoticed. It did not miss the attentions of MusicWeb International, and its very positive review can be found here
. I have pointed the problem out to Andrew Rose, the owner of Pristine Audio, and he has now made this recording easier to find. It is a re-mastering of the very first, 1955, recording of the opera with Samo Hubad conducting the Slovenian National Opera. This was originally released as a Philips LP, but appears to have had a very limited distribution given its scarcity today. It has, in more recent times, been available as a Naxos download; Naxos call it Sorochinsti Fair
. Rose’s re-mastering is superb, and the sound quality is very good indeed, hardly short of the stereo recordings. The performance is perfectly satisfactory, even though it falls a little short of the two later ones mentioned above. It sometimes seems to follow the letter rather than the spirit of the score, as though all involved were slightly too aware of the artistic responsibility involved in committing a famous composer’s music to record for the first time. One suspects that Mussorgsky would have recommended a few strong drinks and some relaxation.
The second recording under review, with Evgeny Brazhnik conducting the Ekaterinburg State Academic Opera Theatre, was first released on the Russian Ural label in 1998 and is now repackaged, with English supporting materials. It is strikingly different from the 1955 recording, with an energetic, unbuttoned, sometimes rather free performance that certainly called for no additional stimulation. I get the impression that Brazhnik took the earlier Esipov recording as a model of how the opera should be played: a good idea in itself, but what sounded natural and full of comic verve in Esipov’s hands sometimes comes across as forced and excessively theatrical here. The tempo is often recklessly fast, as in the ‘Night on the Bare Mountain’ music, which is the most breathless rendering I’ve heard. The different speeds at which the various conductors take this is very revealing. In Hubad’s careful (to the point of cautious) reading, it clocks a time of 13.05. In Esipov’s more exciting interpretation 11.38, in Ahronovitch’s brisk delivery 11.00, and in Brazhnik’s steroid-fuelled sprint a mere 10.04. These are massive differences, and if Hubad misses some of the fun of the thing, Brazhnik certainly misses some of the grandeur. Another problem I have with the Brilliant Classics recording is the grating voice of Svetlana Zalizniak in the role of Khivrya. This is the largest and most difficult role in the opera, and for a long stretch of Act 2 Khivrya is alone on stage. Zalizniak may perhaps be trying too hard to sing ‘in character’ (the nagging wife), but certainly there is something quite unpleasant about her singing, any gains in realism coming at a heavy price to enjoyment.
A final point to make about the Brilliant Classics release is its stinginess. It offers the opera alone and nothing else, the second CD containing less than 28 minutes of music. Surely something could have been added? The Pristine release is more generous, with good recordings of the orchestral Night on the Bare Mountain
and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances
. Here, as in many other respects, it is the old Olympia issue that really stands out and in that case Borodin’s rarely heard Petite Suite
, orchestrated by Glazunov, is a most generous bonus.
In conclusion, then, Esipov’s recording of the opera remains the best, and I hope it will be re-released in the future, preferably with a proper translation of the libretto. With that increasingly hard to obtain, and Ahronovitch’s version even more so, the two currently-available recordings reviewed here are reasonable alternatives for anyone not too fussed about understanding what they are listening to. Of the two, I would choose the Pristine release for its musical qualities and historical importance, even if it is a little too literal-minded. However, as I write this, I’m looking at my beautifully boxed set of the Ahronovitch (or Aranovich) release from 1972 and imagining how exciting it must have been to have discovered the opera in this form in those pre-CD, pre-download days. The packaging there represents a statement of faith in the music, and of the need to nurture the audience for unfamiliar works; that accompanying the present releases seems grievously meagre by comparison.
Previous review (Pristine): Rob Barnett