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Power Players: Russian Arias for Bass
Full contents listed at end of review
Ildar Abdrazakov (bass-baritone)
Kaunsus City Symphony Orchestra and State Choir/Constantine Orbelian
rec. Kaunas Philharmonic, Lithuania, 9-13 May 2013
DELOS DE3456 [66.49]

Ildar Abdrazakov first came to prominence after victory in the 2000 Maria Callas International Television Competition. He was then just twenty-four years old. This led to his debut at La Scala as Rodolfo in Bellini';s La Sonnambula, since when he has gone on to realize a high profile international career in the Italian basso cantante repertoire. This has included engagements at New York';s Metropolitan Opera in classic roles such as King Henry in Anna Bolena alongside Netrebko and the smarmy Basilio in Rossini';s Il barbiere di Siviglia at Covent Garden. His performances in Russian opera have until the recent past been a rarer occurrence. Of note was his singing of the title role in the Met's idiosyncratic production of Prince Igor in 2014. This was transmitted in HD to cinemas around the world.
 
That Prince Igor was my first opportunity for me to hear his beautifully rich bass-baritone in some detail. I was very impressed by his even beauty of tone, expression and characterization. I left the cinema wanting to hear more when, propitiously, along came this CD. It turns out that as far as I was concerned, his reputation had gone before him, albeit his range of characters in Russian opera was rather limited, even in his own country. The Met seems to have made up for that deficiency by casting him as Dosifey in Khovanshchina as well as Igor. As Dosifey he sang alongside his wife, the redoubtable mezzo Olga Borodina as Marfa. I wonder if that was filmed?
 
Although not being the usual somewhat sepulchral Russian bass and recognizing that his voice suits the Italian repertoire, he is now more than ready to expand his horizons in the works of his compatriots. This is illustrated by the present collection which, as befits the genre, is dominated, but not limited, to the works of the so-called “Mighty Handful”. In this he follows the precedent set by so many earlier collections, particularly by the Bulgarians, Christoff and Ghiaurov who dominated the international recordings for the bass voice in the 1960s and 1970s.
 
Having been lucky enough to see those two famous basses in the title role of Boris Godunov, that was where I started my listening with the Coronation Scene extract from the Prologue (Tr.12). In the Covent Garden production of the period referred to, Boris appears first at the top of a staircase, orb and sceptre in hand, before descending with all the imperial majesty that the singer could command. In Christoff';s case that was considerable. To the cacophony of the orchestra and bells, he arrived, rolled his eyes and poured forth a stream of gloriously dramatic singing so as to make my hair stand on end. By then he had been singing in the production I was watching since 1947. He was no longer a young ingénue to the role, but vastly experienced and with a tonal patina of sonority that only comes with age and experience. How would he have sounded in his earlier years compared to Abdrazakov I wondered. Well, thanks to the wonders of technology I could have a listen via the recording of the complete opera he made under Issay Dobrowen in 1952 (see review). The two singers share a beauty of tone, evenness of legato and clear diction — all significant virtues. If the Bulgarian scores over the Russian in characterization that is hardly unexpected given his experience singing the role on stage at that time. As far as I am concerned, Abdrazakov is the best Russian bass-baritone I have heard in this role since, dare I mention the name, Chaliapin. Experience will deepen his characterization and as long as he can return to Mozart roles from time to time, as he will at the Met in autumn 2014, his beauty of tone and range of expression will stay. He could dominate the role for the years to come if he chooses.
 
Unlike Christoff he does not make much of Vaarlam';s roistering song (Tr.5) but is back in his true métier as Igor (Tr.4). The same applies to the extract from A Life for the Tsar (Tr.9) by Glinka, whose works set the path for Russian opera with its distinctive patina. That quality spread beyond ‘The Mighty Handful'; to the likes of Tchaikovsky and can be heard in Abdrazakov';s beautifully phrased rendition of Gremin';s reflective aria from Eugene Onegin (Tr.7). The characteristic Russianness of the music is also heard in the works of later composers such as Prokofiev (Tr.10). Then add the particular strengths that a Russian chorus brings to their native music — much the same as Italian';s do with theirs — and this adds further lustre to this collection. This also goes along with idiomatic conducting from Constantine Orbelian who spends a lot of his time immersed in the culture and music of Russia to good effect.
 
This disc has given me much pleasure. It is a tantalizing glimpse of a talent that could dominate this repertoire on the world stages, if the owner so chooses, in the coming years. I doubt that we shall get a studio recording of his Boris in the near future, and certainly not with him singing the main three bass roles as Christoff did in his two complete recordings. However, a second disc from Abdrazakov including the Clock Scene and Death of Boris along with Pimen';s aria, all from Boris Godunov, would be very welcome indeed, if anyone out there is listening or reading.
 
It is a long time since a record was issued of native Russian singing arias from that country';s rich operatic repertoire and with its distinctive patina. That Ildar Abdrazakov brings his characteristic beauty of tone and diction to the music is particularly welcome.

Robert J Farr
 
Full contents
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Aleko — “Ves tabor spit” (All the camp is asleep) [6:19]
Mikhail GLINKA (1804-1857)
Ruslan and Ludmila — Farlaf ';s Rondo [3:34]; O pole, pole (Oh, field, field) [11:47]
A Life for the Tsar — Chuyut pravdu (They suspect the truth!) [5:56]
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1877)
Prince Igor Ne sna ne otdykha (There';s no sleep, no repose) [7:38]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Boris Godunov Kak vo gorode bylo vo Kazani (At Kazan, where long ago I fought) [2:11]; Coronation Scene [8.18]
Anton RUBINSTEIN (1830-1894)
The Demon — Na Vozdushnom Okeane (In the ocean of the sky) [5:05]
Pyotr TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Eugene Onegin — Liubvi vsem vozrasty pokorny (Love has nothing to do with age) [5:37]
Iolanta — Gospod moi, yesli greshin ya (Oh Lord, have pity on me!) [4:31]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
War and Peace — Velichavaya v solnechnykh luchakh (Majestic, flashing in the sunshine) [4:31]
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Sadko Viking Song” [2:53]