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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Eugene Onegin (1879) [141.58]
Eugene Belov - Eugene Onegin (baritone)
Galina Vishnevskaya - Tatyana (soprano)
Ivan Petrov - Prince Gremin (bass)
Sergei Lemeshev - Lensky (tenor)
Larissa Avdeyeva - Olga (mezzo)
Valentina Petrova- Madame Larina (mezzo)
Eugena Verbitskaya - Philipyevna (contralto)
Georgi Pankov - Captain (baritone)
Igor Mikhailov - Zaretsky (bass)
Andrei Sokolov - Monsieur Triquet (tenor)
Nikolai Timchenko - Precentor (bass)
Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra and Chorus/Boris Khaikin
rec. 1955, Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO 099 [68:56 + 73:03]

“Eugene Onegin” - more properly, “Yevgeny”, but the westernisation of the name has stuck - is deservedly Tchaikovsky’s most popular opera, brimful of wonderful tunes and erotic passion. It’s lonely, aloof protagonist, who lives to regret bitterly his cold rejection of a woman devoted to him, continues to appeal to our poetic imaginations as an archetype of the confused modern man. For good measure and contrast, we have a headstrong, immature poet in Lensky and an aging aristocrat who finds true love in a May-December match with Tatyana, herself full of wild and conflicting emotions,. The characters are vividly depicted in what is, by normal operatic standards and thanks to Pushkin’s original, a subtle and psychologically acute plot with a plausible but oddly anti-climactic conclusion.
This 1955 Soviet recording was technically very good for its era in very clear, forward mono sound which captures perfectly that peculiarly Russian atmosphere so essential to the piece. It has been available in Melodiya’s own transfer to CD and what is apparently a good transfer from master tapes on Preiser but I have not heard those. I do, however, own the acceptable budget Opera d'Oro issue, which you can buy in its basic version or in the de luxe set with libretto. As it is just a straight transfer of LPs onto CD, without much in the way of re-mastering, there is some swish and crackle from time to time and a deadness to the acoustic which does not enhance the voices.
However, in this new “Ambient Stereo” re-mastering from the original Melodiya LPs, Andrew Rose has worked his usual magic for Pristine. Extraneous noise has been removed and the somewhat harsh and airless sound has been transformed to give the recording real depth in the lower frequencies and space around the voices. The volume level is appreciably higher than the Opera d’Oro CDs and as such we are given a more detailed sound-picture at convenient listening volume levels.

Conductor Boris Khaikin ensures that all kinds of subtleties emerge. To take an example at random, listen to the way he and the orchestra follow every accelerando, rubato and nuance of the peerless Lemeshev's first aria, "Ya lyublyu vas", his declaration of love to Olga. It's as if singer and instruments are breathing in concert. It is noticeable how quickly Khaikin moves things along - no dopey, droopy mooning and lingering. Depth of feeling is conveyed by the singer-actors inflecting the words with emotional colour and by the conductor's constant, minute attention to phrasing. No tempo is constantly sustained for more than a few bars before something is marked or emphasised. It never sounds contrived or artificial - this is singing as natural as speaking. I love the way Khaikin differentiates through orchestral style between the boisterous, provincial party hosted by the Larin family for Tatyana's name-day and the grand, elegant St Petersburg ball where Onegin re-encounters the mature Tatyana.

Vishnevskaya's bright, vibrant tones are perfect for the hysterical ingénue Tatyana in the first act. She matures wholly credibly into the grande dame of the last Act. Belov has been criticised as a dull stick of an Onegin but he, too, succeeds in convincing us of a transformation from aloofness to desperation. He evinces that directness and clarity with the text which characterises every member of the Bolshoi cast. His very forward, hard-edged baritone is perfect for the cocksure, patronising brute which is Onegin in the first act to the imploring wreck of the opera's last few pages. Onegin has doubtless been sung by baritones more intrinsically beautiful of voice such as Yuri Mazurok, Thomas Allen and Pavel Lisitsian. However Belov interacts sensitively with Vishnevskaya and certainly does not disappoint in the fervour of his appeal to Tatyana. The last scene builds to a thrilling and heart-rending climax.
The supremacy of this cast and performance is confirmed by a beautiful account of his great aria by Ivan Petrov as Prince Gremin. He manages to sound dignified, noble, mature and lovestruck all at once. What a treat to hear a true Russian basso profondo with the warmth, flexibility and top notes of a basso cantante. Lemeshev is without equal. His plangent, liquid tones and the ineffable sweetness of his tenor spoil you for all other interpreters of the super-sensitive Lensky. It's true that his conductor indulges him in some very elastic tempi during his two big arias, but when a voice is so beautiful, capable of such melting diminuendos and thrilling top notes, it craves indulgence. I wish M. Triquet sang his eulogising "couplets" for Tatyana in French rather than Russian as Michel Sénéchal does so memorably in the Solti recording but Andrei Sokolov here is another lovely tenor, so it's not really an issue.
This is an opera I adore and several favourite versions in my collection include those by Ermler, Solti and Levine. They all have great merit but this vintage account is surely one of the seminal, if not definitive, recordings by performers wholly immersed in Russian tradition.
One little gripe: I cannot easily read the highly stylised “faux-Cyrillic” font that the Pristine designers have devised for the front cover artwork featuring the young Vishnevskaya. It’s attractive and atmospheric but virtually illegible.  

Ralph Moore