Russian Songs and Romances
An Old Waltz (K. Listov - M. Ruderman)
'Tis Not You I Love so Ardently (A. Shishkin - M. Lermontov)
The Moonlit Night (M. Shishkin - N. Yazykov)
Misty Morning (V. Abaza - I. Turgenev)
I Won’t Tell You Anything (T. Tolstaya - A. Fet)
All Is Quiet (music and words by T. Tolstaya)
Why Does My Heart ... (anonymous, arranged by Ya. Prigozhi)
A Sad Maiden (A. Gurilev - A. Koltsov)
Prayer (P. Bulakhov - M. Lermontov; I Haven’t Forgotten You with Years (P. Bulakhov - L. Zhodeiko)
Calm, so Calm... (anonymous)
My Old Husband (A. Verstovsky - A. Pushkin)
Short-Lived Dreams (P. Ladyzhensky - D. Rotgauz, G.Ratgauz)
A Deep-Red Shawl (anonymous)
Elena Obratsova (mezzo)
USSR TV and Radio Russian Folk Orchestra/Nikolai Nekrasov
rec. 1981, location not specified
MELODIYA MELCD1002332 [42.28]

This CD was planned in 2014 as a tribute on what would have been her 75th birthday. It now stands as a timely memorial to the Russian mezzo who died in January 2015. She was actually aged 77, not 75, as is often believed, including by the producers of this CD; like so many divas, she had knocked a couple of years off her age.

Obratsova was one of that first generation of Russian — or, more accurately, Soviet — singers who were able to have real careers in the West, unlike her immediate predecessors who had been trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Obratsova made her debut as Marina in Boris Godunov at the Bolshoi in 1963 and by the following year had sung at La Scala (Marfa in Khovanshchina). Her British debut was not until 1981 — the year in which this CD was recorded — when she appeared as Azucena in Il Trovatore at Covent Garden with Sutherland, Bonisoli and Mazurok. I saw her twice in that run and remember well the tremendous power of both her chest and high notes and the visceral intensity of her performance. Her last appearance in the UK was at St John's Smith Square in March 2000, when she gave a recital which I, quite unexpectedly, found heartbreakingly moving in the Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky songs. She told me afterwards that she wanted to come back and give a recital of Hugo Wolf songs, which would have been, at the very least, interesting. She was still performing in 2014, with several recitals in Russia and a performance of the Old Countess in The Queen of Spades in St Petersburg.

The present recital is not of repertoire with which we immediately associate her, but such songs were de rigueur for all Soviet singers of that era. These "romances", as Russians refer to them, are an equivalent to the Neapolitan songs of Italy: populist, melodic, with an emotional range which is perhaps not deep but can be immensely enjoyable and sometimes stubbornly memorable. The programme here is almost exclusively of the soulfully melancholic type of song which might be thought of as particularly Russian. In fact there isn't a single song which could be called truly light-hearted or in a fast tempo and there is a huge preponderance of waltz time. This does not trouble me but some may find the recital a little unvaried. It is, however, very well planned with the selection following a naturally-evolving course. We start with a sentimental waltz, moving to a slightly livelier one before a series of three slower, melancholy songs, followed by a lighter song - and so on. The sequence has been carefully considered and works very well. Several songs such as "All is quiet" and "Calm, so calm" have a distinctly operetta feel. "Why does my heart" is positively music-hall, with a striking resemblance to "Oh, oh, Antonio". All are quite short and none outstays its welcome.

Obratsova is in fine voice. Obviously, none of these songs is remotely vocally taxing, but the light and shade of her phrasing and obvious feel for the style are very impressive. For my own taste, her vibrato would ideally be a little less loose and there is a certain acidity at the top, but, then, that was Obratsova's way throughout her career. The accompaniments are of the typical Russian "folk orchestra" type, with its heavily balalaika and accordion-based sonority, and are very well played, if slightly distantly recorded. The CD is a straight reissue of the 1981 Melodiya LP, hence the rather parsimonious duration.

There are no musical masterpieces on this CD and the more austere listener would doubtless regard its contents as mere kitsch, but I found it hugely enjoyable.

Paul Steinson

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