The literary works of Maurice Maeterlinck inspired many musical compositions, with his plays being taken up by composers, who subsequently used them for their operas. His Pelleas and Melisande
was used by Debussy for his opera, whilst Fauré, Sibelius and Schoenberg used it as a basis for orchestral works. In 1907, Rachmaninov was attracted to Monna Vanna
, Maeterlinck’s three act historical drama, set in Pisa, Italy and published in 1902. He decided to use it for an opera, in what was to be his last attempt at composing in this genre. Unfortunately, his other operas have never had any universal recognition. At the time, the composer was working on his Second Symphony and a piano sonata. It was Mikhail Slonov (1858-1930) who adapted Maeterlinck’s play for this purpose.
Rachmaninov eventually abandoned work on the opera when he realized that copyright problems stood in his way. Maeterlinck had written a Monna Vanna
libretto for the French composer Henry Fevrier (1875-1957) and had granted him the rights for an opera. Thus, Rachmaninov, avoiding a possible tangle over copyright issues, gave up on the project. All that was completed was Act I in piano score, and some sketches for Act II.
Many year later, Rachmaninov’s sister-in-law Sophia Satina (1879-1975) asked the conductor Igor Buketoff to orchestrate Act I, and this was eventually premiered in New York in 1984. Some years later, in the early ’nineties, Buketoff conducted the Iceland Symphony Orchestra in an English version of this realization for Chandos (CHAN8987); it runs for 42:38 against Ashkenazy’s 38:06. Unfortunately, I have never heard it. What we have here is the first Russian version, orchestrated for this recording by Gennady Belov (b.1939).
Unable to make a direct comparison with the Buketoff orchestration, I can say that Gennady Belov has done a sterling job here. The expert scoring showcases all the orchestral colours and sonorities. He is acutely sensitive to the soloists with his orchestration, which is lightly scored and transparent in accompaniment. Those expecting ‘big tunes’, however, will be disappointed, and having listened to the recording twice through, there is nothing of the music that remains memorable.
Sound quality and balance are ideal. Ashkenazy inspires the Moscow Conservatory Symphony Orchestra to play with great commitment, and he achieves a heady mix of drama and lyricism. The soloists are first rate, and I would single out Evgeniya Dushina (soprano) and Vladimir Avtomonov (baritone) for special mention.
In the second half of the CD, Ashkenazy is joined by the Finnish lyric soprano Soile Isokoski in seven of Rachmaninov’s songs. Ashkenazy is no stranger to the composer’s song oeuvre having recorded the complete set with Elisabeth Söderström (Decca London 436 920-2, recorded 1974-75). I have recently reviewed the complete songs with seven different soloists and Iain Burnside at the piano, on Delphian
. Rachmaninov composed his songs between 1890 and 1916. When he left Russia in 1917, he never returned to the genre again. Several reasons can be given for this for this; financial considerations played a part, but so too his estrangement from the Russian language, its verse and the singers who stimulated his creativity.
On the whole this is a pleasing selection. Isokoski proves an ideal interpreter, characterizing each song with sensitivity. However, there are one or two minor caveats. In Vocalise
, Op. 34, No.14, she doesn’t sustain the long legato line as effectively as Ekaterina Siurina in the Delphian set. Neither is Ashkenazy’s accompaniment as sensitive and discreet as Burnside’s. In some of the high passages, I thought Isokoski’s voice tended towards a slight hardness. Yet, these are minor criticisms and should not put the prospective buyer off what is an admirable disc. The recording engineers have achieved exemplary sound quality, with perfect balance between singer and pianist. The piano sound is a great improvement on the 1970s Decca set. Russian texts and translations are provided for both the opera and the songs. Informative booklet notes set the context.