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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
The Tsar's Bride
– opera in four acts (1898)
Vasily Stepanovich Sobakin - Evgeny Nesterenko (bass) Marfa - Galina Vishnevskaya (soprano)
Grigori Grigor'yevich Gryaznoy - Vladimir Valaytis (baritone)
Grigori Luk'yanovich Malyuta-Skuratov - Boris Morozov (bass)
Ivan Sergeyevich Lykov - Vladimir Atlantov (tenor)
Lyubasha - Irina Arkhipova (mezzo)
Yelisey Bomelius - Andrei Sokolov (tenor)
Domna Ivanovna Saburavova - Eleonora Andreeva (soprano)
Dunyasha - Galina Borisova (mezzo)
Petrovna - Veronika Ivanova Borisenko (mezzo)
The Tsar’s stoker - Vladimir Maltchenko (bass)
A maiden - Nina Lebendeva (mezzo)
A young lad – Konstantin Baskov (tenor)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre/Fuat Mansurov
rec. 1973, Moscow. ADD
MELODIYA MELCD1001876 [76:12 + 74:26]

There have not been so many recordings of “The Tsar’s Bride” that we may say we are spoiled for choice. This set, in many ways leads the field, by dint of a thoroughly idiomatic Bolshoi cast and excellent analogue sound from 1973. It is very competently directed by a conductor largely unknown in the West who was nonetheless a stalwart at the Bolshoi. It is apparently the same in sound quality as the issues previously available on Chant du Monde and now on Opera d’Oro, except that the tracking here is different. It is in Melodiya’s attractive, new, folding digipack format, with a historical note, synopsis, cast list and track details in Russian and English but no libretto; for that, you would need to own its main competition, the latest, 1998 studio recording by Gergiev for Philips. The only other relatively modern studio recording is the one from 1992 conducted by Andrey Christiakov, which some reviewers liked far more than I (review); I found the sound to be very dry and unatmospheric and the soloists to lack quality. Compared with the silky-voiced Dmitri Hvorostovsky for Gergiev and the vibrant Vladimir Valaytis here for Mansurov, Christiakov’s Vladislav Verestnikov has a cloudy, laboured sound. Verestnikov's only merit was that he does not at least run the risk of making the repellent anti-hero Gryaznov too attractive by virtue of his having too beautiful a voice. Otherwise his co-singers are inferior, with too many wobbly sopranos, a nasal tenor and some lumpy basses.

By contrast, Mansurov’s cast is near perfect and features some of the finest Soviet singers of their generation. These include the great bass Evgeny Nesterenko, renowned mezzo-soprano Irina Arkhipova, the powerful Otello tenor of Valdimir Atlantov and Galina Vishnevskaya, no longer in her youthful prime and sometimes a little strident but still infinitely touching as the abused and pallid Marfa. I am especially impressed by the baritone Valaytis, whom I admit was previously quite unknown to me. He has a firm, heroic sound reminiscent in tone of Sergei Leiferkus, with a slightly fast vibrato and an impressive upper extension; he need fear no comparison with Hvorostovsky. Boris Morozov is superb as Malyuta. Despite a certain hardness of sound Atlantov is considerably more heroic than his rather effete counterpart Akimov for Gergiev. There are some lovely set pieces, starting with the overture such as the rousing “Slava” table songs and some splendid ensembles, such as the sextet in Act 3. I also particularly like Arkhipova’s a cappella lament and the subsequent, emotionally intense duet for Lyubasha and Grigori.

"The Tsar's Bride" is many ways almost a parody of the typical grim Russian opera, with its dark, atmosphere, victimisation of innocents, folksy interludes and its conflict between family and tradition and the corruption and egoism of the court. Rimsky-Korsakov's music betrays the heavy influence of both Tchaikovsky - immediately obvious in the martial motif and soaring melody which alternate in the overture - and Mussorgsky, even quoting the traditional "Slava" theme from "Boris Godunov" to represent the unseen Tsar. Although he conceived “The Tsar’s Bride” in part as an homage to his two departed predecessors, Rimsky-Korsakov did not, unfortunately, have all their dramatic and melodic gifts. Too often there is a static quality to his writing which is probably at the heart of the reason for this opera never having really caught on in the West. Some arias fail to lift off, although there are highlights, such as the anti-hero Gryaznoy's ruminations which open the opera and the concluding "mad scene" for Marfa. Rimsky himself said, "Thank God I am, it would seem, no dramatic composer"; it is not always possible to endorse his sentiments despite the compensations of his lyrical gifts.

This is the most political and realistic of his operas, the second he wrote based on the life and times of Ivan the Terrible, attempting a combination of the epic quality and psychological subtlety found in "Boris" and "Khovanshchina". That said, it has little of their sweep and momentum, and has a rather incongruous emphasis upon bel canto. Nonetheless, it represents a departure from the fairy-tale idiom more often encountered in Rimsky’s operas. The plot is taut and the music far less given to defaulting into static showpieces in the manner of “Sadko”, being more symphonic and free-flowing. It is almost “verismo” in its depiction of the psychomachia of very flawed characters such as the despicable Gryaznov, led off–stage like Iago to undergo unspeakable tortures. This is an opera permitting subtle shades of grey in its characterisation rather than the black and white opposition of good and evil that we find in the magic operas.

If you already own the Gergiev recording, I would not rush to replace it with this one, but if you are buying your first “The Tsar’s Bride”, this is the obvious first choice, as long as you can cope with the issue of a missing libretto.

Ralph Moore



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