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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1900) [147.04]
Ivan Petrov (bass) - Tsar Saltan; Evgenia Smolenskaia (soprano) - Militrisaa; Evgenia Shumilova (mezzo) - Tkachikha; Evgenia Verbitskaia (contralto) - Barbarikha; Larissa Nikitina (soprano) - Povarikha; Vladimir Ivanovsky (tenor) - Guidon; Galina Oleinichenko (soprano) - Swan Princess; Pavel Chekin (tenor) - Old man; Andrei Ivanov (baritone) - Messenger; Mark Reshetin (bass) - Court jester; N Kaluzhsky, A Bolshakov, A Gheleva (tenor, baritone and bass) – Sea merchants
Bolshoi Theatre Chorus and Orchestra/Vassily Nebolsin
rec. Moscow, 1958
no text or translation provided
MELODIYA MELCD1002199 [71.03 + 76.01]

Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas range over a wide field – historical epics, satires and even a one-act setting of Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri. The vast majority are treatments of Russian folk tales, either more or less straightforward such as The snow maiden or Sadko, or more abstruse such as The invisible city of Kitezh or Mlada. However all of them have in common an element of mythological symbolism which gives the composer plenty of opportunity to indulge in his two greatest strengths: the depiction of nature in all its guises, and his superlative command of the science of orchestration.
The Tale of Tsar Saltan stands slightly apart. In the first place, it is not, as far as I am aware, based on any traditional Russian folk story at all. It is an invention in the style of a fairy story by Pushkin which was set by Rimsky in commemoration of the poet’s anniversary. In the second place, there appears to be no symbolism or deeper meaning at all, just a pure and simple delight in the basic elements of a fairy story – three sisters, a marooned mother and son, a final happy reconciliation. Add to these enough marvels and wonders to keep the most ardent aficionado of pantomime in ecstasies for months. In fact it is something of a surprise to find that the plot was never taken up by the Victorian promoters of Christmas pantomimes in British theatres. It has far more opportunities for comedy and spectacle than Dick Whittington, for example, including the transformation of the hero into a bumble bee.
Indeed Rimsky’s music for The flight of the bumble bee, long a favourite showpiece for any and every possible instrument, is probably the one bit of the score that is at all familiar. Rimsky did – in his usual fashion – extract a suite, oddly enough excluding the bumble bee - which is in fact cobbled together from various passages in the score. This has hardly established itself firmly in the repertory in the way that the suite from The golden cockerel, for example, has managed to do. That makes this set all the more valuable, since at the time of writing there appear to be no other representations of the score in the catalogue. There was apparently an even older German-language mono recording. Quite apart from the matter of translation, mono sound could hardly begin to do justice to Rimsky’s orchestration. A 1987 video of a production by Harry Küpfer which the Metropolitan Opera Guide describes as heavily cut seemingly has about a third of the score missing. Much the same applied to the audio recording of Küpfer’s production of Kitezh — why did Küpfer persist in producing Rimsky scores in which he clearly had so little confidence? Both are presumably available through second-hand outlets, but none are currently listed on Archiv.
This makes it all the more reprehensible that the sole available recording should be so deficiently presented in this reissue. Last month I complained about the cheese-paring presentation of the Melodiya release of Semyon Kotko, recommending that potential purchasers should instead aim for the Chandos reissue which provided full texts and translation. I now see that those discs too have disappeared from the list of current releases although copies both new and second-hand should remain available for some time. I also commented unfavourably on the cuts made in Gergiev Philips recording of the Prokofiev opera. Despite that fact that substantial cuts in that issue have been alleged by among others Edward Greenfield and Rob Barnett, it appears that the three-quarters of an hour shorter duration of the Gergiev account may be largely attributed to that conductor’s considerably faster speeds – it still seems an incredible difference, however. The matter would have been resolved if Melodiya had provided a libretto to enable comparisons to be made, but they didn’t; I am grateful to Robert Cummings for pointing the issue out. Nor do they do so here. At least the reissue of Semyon Kotko gave us the full names of the singers on those discs, not just the initials that were the standard practice in describing performers in the Soviet era. Here we just get the bare unadorned initials, although presumably the full names were available at the time that Philip Hope-Wallace reviewed the LP release for the Gramophone in November 1961. The names given in the header to this review derive from that publication with the exception of the previously uncredited singers of the three sea merchants. Presumably Melodiya could have extracted them from their archives with minimal effort. I am afraid this sort of shoddy presentation of an obscure opera is simply not good enough. The synopsis, inadequate in the extreme, suffers from a translation which is often garbled and ungrammatical. Nor are the titles given to the individual tracks precisely enticing. The opening duet of Act Two, we are informed, is entitled “Oh how nice, finally we’re out of the barrel” which may be a literal translation of Pushkin but sounds more like a music-hall song.
Fortunately — and unlike the Prokofiev — the score is available online from the invaluable ISMLP site – split inconveniently into ten individual files, one for each scene. We should be grateful to have it available at all and I am not complaining in the least. I have employed this vocal score as a guide in reviewing this set – although that will be of little help to listeners who love Rimsky’s music but cannot read a score. The 1901 Bessel score gives the text only in the original Russian and German translation, so a further effort is required to appreciate exactly what is going on. That said, the effort is well repaid, since much of the music is straight out of Rimsky-Korsakov’s top drawer. It includes some truly novel effects such as the chorus in alternating 5/8 and 5/4 metres during Act One (CD 1, track 16). The scene of Guidon’s coronation (CD 2, track 4) owes more than a little to that of Boris Godunov, complete with pealing unpitched bells, although the cannon shots which punctuate the score are effectively inaudible here. The score is given, thank goodness, note-complete – Tsar Saltan is not long.
The performance features many of the Bolshoi’s major performers during the 1950s. The forward placing given to the voices might lead one to fear the worst excesses of Slavonic unsteadiness. In the event the singers deliver their lines crisply and cleanly, even when they are very much in the listener’s face. Vladimir Ivanovsky as the heroic young Prince is the most impressive, although none of the singing is less than satisfactory. The one exception is the very vinegary-sounding Pavel Chekin who takes characterisation of the Old Man to extremes. The orchestra generally play with alertness and poise, although those who are allergic to such things should note that the sound of the horns is very Russian in style — by which I mean they have a tendency to resemble vibrato-laden saxophones in places. The recording means that sometimes detail in the score cannot be as cleanly discerned as might be desirable.
No, what we really need is a good modern stereo recording of Tsar Saltan. Although this reissue is rather more than just a stop-gap, the manner of its presentation here means that it can be counted as little more than that. The change between the two CDs is wrongly placed, too. The first phrase of Militrissa’s aria concludes the first disc, taking up the second phrase at the beginning of the second. The break should have been made eight bars earlier.
Paul Corfield Godfrey