Maurice Maeterlinck was one of the great playwrights around the turn of the last century. Many of his works inspired composers to write music of various kinds. Pelléas et Mélisande
is probably his most famous creation, which besides Debussy’s opera also tempted Fauré, Sibelius and Schönberg. In Monna Vanna
, published in 1902, he more or less abandoned the mysterious and vague settings of previous works and focused on more explicit historical backgrounds. This, obviously was what triggered Rachmaninov to tackle this play as an opera. He set the first act before he asked the author for permission but soon realised that Henry Février had already been granted the rights. Then Rachmaninov relinquished the idea and what remained was a first act in piano score, from which Igor Buketoff prepared a performing edition which was premiered in New York in 1984 and recorded by Chandos on CHAN8987. The orchestration heard on this CD was made by Gennady Belov. We need not go into details about the story; suffice to say that Rachmaninov, in spite of several attempts, never managed to write an opera that has been acknowledged and become part of the standard repertoire.
This doesn’t mean that this act from an unfinished opera lacks interest. His orchestral output has dramatic ingredients and he worked on Monna Vanna
while staying in Dresden in 1907 when he also created his Second Symphony. This is one of his greatest creations and there are hints at greatness also in Monna Vanna
. Principally speaking it is a kind of continuous melodious recitative that occasionally intensifies in arioso-like sections. The orchestra is rather active with comments on the proceedings. The choral opening to scene III is a musical highlight and it is followed by Guido’s long solo to Monna Vanna which is touchingly sung. He is portrayed with great warmth, both by Rachmaninov and by the admirable Vladimir Avtomonov. The act ends in a question mark: “We will see …” No dramatic outburst, just a fading out.
The solo singing is generally good and so is the singing and playing of the forces from the Moscow Conservatory. Lovers of Rachmaninov’s music shouldn’t hesitate. Go and buy and in the bargain you get a substantial bonus: seven of Rachmaninov’s best songs sung by Soile Isokoski with Ashkenazy at the piano. Ashkenazy’s capacity as a Rachmaninov interpreter is well known, not least from his collaboration with Elisabeth Söderström more than thirty years ago (Decca London 436 920-2, 1974-75). I have treasured those recordings since they were new and still find them irresistible but I have to admit that Soile Isokoski challenges her. She is wonderfully lyrical and sensitive in Sad night
(tr. 6), even more so in The lilacs
(tr. 7), which is one of Rachmaninov’s best known songs. The rat-catcher
(tr. 8) is unusually humorous for a composer whose music often is on the melancholy side. The evergreen Vocalise
(tr. 9) is here, sung with endearing shadings. The remaining two songs are also lovely with Dream
being possibly the most hauntingly atmospheric of all his songs. Isokoski’s reading makes me hope for more Rachmaninov from her and Ashkenazy. The recordings are excellent.
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