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Anton RUBINSTEIN (1829 - 1894)
The Demon - opera in prologue and three acts (1871) [147: 51]
Text by P. Viskovatov after the poem by Lermontov - Sung in Russian.
The Demon – Alexander Polyakov (bass-baritone)
Tamara – Nina Lebedeva (soprano)
Prince Goudal – Evgeny Vladimirov (bass)
Prince Sinodal – Alexey Usmanov (tenor)
Nanny – Nina Grigorieva (alto)
The Angel – Nina Derbina (mezzo)
Messenger – Yury Elnikov (tenor)
Old Servant – Boris Morozov (bass)
Symphonic Orchestra and Academic Choir of the USSR All-Union Radio Moscow/Boris Khaikin
rec. 1974, Moscow, Russia. ADD
MELODIYA MELCD1002102 [68:36 + 79:15]

What a complex, sophisticated and absorbing score this opera is; there aren’t too many other recordings but most collectors interested in Russian opera will know the classic 1950 Melik-Pashaev mono version with Ivanov and Kozlovsky and the live Wexford Festival performance from 1994 on Naxos. The former is great but cannot compare sonically with later recordings and the latter has the advantage of full tracking cues both in English and with a Russian transliteration of them, plus a full, English-only libretto.
 
This Melodiya set, issued for the first time on two CDs in a neatly packaged, cardboard fold-out case, remains the best all-round recommendation but has only a synopsis. It is a definite advantage to have access to the full text, which is indebted to the original poem by Mikhail Lermontov, so I found myself referring the Naxos libretto while listening to this as the words are often moving and poetic.
 
This is the complete score and some twenty minutes longer than the Wexford version which cuts the men’s and women’s dances in Act 2. Otherwise, I would not rush to buy this if you already have that Naxos recording. Despite being performed in Ireland, it features a Russian conductor and five native Russians in the principal roles plus the ethnically Russian, Russian- speaking Canadian Alison Browner as the Nanny – and all are excellent. In some case, the soloists in Wexford are even preferable to those in this recording: the tenor of Valery Serkin as Prince Sinodal is decidedly sweeter and more ingratiating than the very nasal, constricted, albeit very “Russian” sound of Alexey Usmanov. I prefer the fuller sound of the young Maria Mescheriakova to the typically rather strident soprano of Nina Lebedeva. She brings a very vibrant, slightly tremulous sound to her characterisation of Tamara; Mescheriakova is steadier but both make much of Tamara’s Romance.
 
Both recordings field two superb leading baritones: Anatoly Lochak is very fine but Alexander Polyakov is even better. Even though his top Gs sometimes strain him; he brings such intensity to the Demon’s two big arias, no wonder that music was taken up by Chaliapin. Polyakov’s warm, grainy, seductive tone brings out all the intriguing ambivalence of the Demon’s persona. He is a baritone in the great tradition of Lisitsian, Mazurok and Leiferkus: ringing and weighty with an edge apt for conveying desperation. There are also two excellent basses in the smaller roles of Gudal and the Old Servant, who have some really lovely music to sing, such as the arioso “All Christians are asleep” in the Entr’acte between Acts II and III.
 
Russian opera often calls for especially rich-voiced mezzo-sopranos and altos, too, and both Nina Grigorieva as the Nanny and Nina Derbina as the Angel have strikingly beautiful voices, even if the latter is just occasionally a bit plummy compared with Wexford’s Browner. The male voices of the choir are stupendous, bringing real weight and excitement to big numbers like the lovely “Nighttime” (CD 1, track 10) and “Do not weep” (CD2, track 4), surrounded by a halo of reverberation, comes across as the Russian equivalent of Puccini’s “Humming Chorus”.
 
Even if this Melodiya recording, despite being recorded in Moscow in 1974, is not therefore necessarily more authentically Russian, in terms of both recorded sound and performance it is considerably more atmospheric than the live Wexford performance. That is apparent from the very opening bars of the thrilling, scurrying Prologue. The studio recoding has an appropriately darker, more spacious and reverberant ambience suggestive of epic events played out on a much larger scale than the cleaner, more detailed but somehow more restricted sound at Wexford, which is also afflicted by inevitable stage noise.
 
The climax of the opera is the great duet between Tamara and the Demon in a dénouement which is so much more effective than the end of Gounod’s “Faust”. Comparisons are apt, too, especially in the Prologue, between Boito’s “Mefistofele” with its massed, angelic choirs; clearly Rubinstein achieved here a wholly successful fusion between the musical idioms of both East and West. The conducting under veteran Boris Khaikin is wonderfully free and fluid, the elucidation of those Russian rhythms and orchestral colours being second nature to him. It is a mystery why such a colourful, dramatic and artistically coherent opera, which was a triumph from its premiere in 1871 and was praised even by The Five, Rubinstein’s ideological opponents, should continue to await performance in modern theatres while gothic dross like Meyerbeer “Robert le Diable” continues to be staged.

Ralph Moore