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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1813-1869)
The snow maiden (1882) [209.17]
Elena Zemenkova (soprano) - Snow Maiden; Nicolai Ghiuselev (bass) - King Frost; Alexandrina Milcheva (mezzo) - Spring Fairy; Stefka Mineva (contralto) - Lel; Stefka Evstatieva (soprano) - Lyubomir Diakovsky (tenor) - Wood Sprite, Cottager; Vessela Zorova (mezzo) - Cottager’s wife, Koupava; Lyubomir Videnov (baritone) - Misgir; Avram Andreev (tenor) - Tsar Berendey
Bulgarian Radio Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Stoyan Angelov
rec. National Radio, Sofia, 1985
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94626 [3 CDs: 63.55 + 66.36 + 78.46]

Having complained bitterly on other occasions about the presentation of obscure repertory by Brilliant Classics, I am pleased to be able to report that this issue reproduces the booklet notes from the original issue on Capriccio. It also adds to the information originally provided by making available the complete text and translation online on the Brilliant Classics website. Now the question arises, that if this company can improve on the original issue in this manner, why can’t they do it more often? Never mind; let us be grateful for what we are given. What we are given here is a very good performance of a work that Rimsky-Korsakov regarded as one of his best operas. After the initial presentation he made some cuts in the score. This disc follows his later version although the opera still remains very long; an old Melodiya 1975 LP set conducted by Fedoseyev, which I once owned, clocks in at 188 minutes. This recording is over twenty minutes longer.
The snow maiden was at one time quite popular in Britain. It formed a regular part of the Sadlers Wells repertory during the 1930s and 1940s. It seems now to have fallen into almost total neglect in the UK since then. A Decca LP set from Yugoslavia during the 1950s did absolutely nothing for the reputations of the work, with scrawny sound and generally inadequate singing. The Melodiya set under Fedoseyev, issued on LP by EMI, largely restored the balance, but by that stage the damage had been done. A CD transfer of the Fedoseyev set remains in the catalogues, but the only other current competition is from a live Paris performance under Charles Bruck recorded in 1955. There the sound cannot hope to do justice to one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s most brilliantly orchestrated scores. Otherwise all that is available is the suite which Rimsky extracted from the opera, where the choice is legion. It seems odd however that the work has never figured in Gergiev’s series of Rimsky operas from the Mariinsky.
At the time of its original release, however, this version of The snow maiden was the only representative of the complete opera in the catalogues. It was widely welcomed on those grounds alone. Some of the singers are familiar names from the similarly Bulgarian-based series of Russian operas on Sony, Many of those have already reappeared in the enterprising catalogue of the Brilliant label: Nicolai Ghiuselev, Stefka Estatieva and Alexandrina Milcheva in particular figured in a number of those releases, although Sony’s conductor Emil Tchakarov is here replaced by Stoyan Angelov.
It must be admitted however that the casting here is not always ideal. This is a work that really requires considerable degrees of virtuosity from its singers. It yields on a number of points to the excellent Fedoseyev line-up starring Irina Arkhipova as both Lel and the Spring Fairy. Nor is the recorded sound ideal. It’s a vast improvement on Decca’s old Belgrade sound but nevertheless is comprehensively outclassed by both the orchestral playing and rich stereo provided by Moscow Radio. The issue is not however quite so clear-cut, as I cannot discover whether the Fedoseyev reissue provides any text or translation. It comes now on three CDs: it was on four when originally issued in that format by Chant du Monde, but then a text was provided in French only. Since the plot of the opera is extraordinarily complicated, listeners really need to know what is going on. The provision online of text and translation for this new release is therefore a real bonus. The booklet can be accessed from the Brilliant Classics website.
Coming back then to the present issue, and looking at the singers more closely, the three named above are every bit as good as they were in the earlier Sony sets. Angelov manages to overcome the somewhat backward placement of the orchestra with affectionate and well-pointed playing. Unfortunately Stefka Mineva is rather plummy in the trouser role of the shepherd boy Lel. Avram Andreev is a very real liability in the small role of the Emperor who nevertheless has two substantial arias to sing, with a voice that sounds old in entirely the wrong way: thin and lacking in steadiness. Elena Zemenkova is bright-toned and buoyant, but her piping tones also lack body. She doesn’t really sound like the force of nature that she should embody. Lyubomir Videnov on the other hand is firm and virile - his counterpart on the Decca Belgrade set was an absolute disaster. Lyubomir Diakovsky has all the focus that Andreev lacks. The chorus sings with strength and plenty of life.
If the Fedoseyev set could be reissued with proper documentation, it would remain the preferred option. Otherwise this Brilliant reissue makes a very good substitute. In view of the fact that text and translation have been available it will be the better choice for those who don’t know the opera. It is well worth getting to know: one of Rimsky’s most charming scores and well deserving of the reputation it once had. Mind you, even better would be a recording of the complete work before Rimsky cut it. I cannot imagine, even if the plot may have dragged in the original version, that anything this master of Russian folklore wrote would be totally worthless.
Paul Corfield Godfrey