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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
- Opera in One Act (1892-1893)
Evgeni Nesterenko (bass) - Aleko
Alexander Fedin (tenor) - Young gypsy
Vladimir Matorin (bass) - Old Man (Zemphira's father)
Svetlana Volkova (soprano) - Zemphira
Raisa Kotova (mezzo) - Old Gypsy Woman
USSR TV and Radio Large Chorus
Moscow Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra/Dmitri Kitaenko
rec. 1987. DDD
ALTO ALC1342 [59:21]

Aleko is Rachmaninov's hour-long one-act gypsy opera - one of a trilogy of one-acters. It is to a libretto by V Nemirovich-Danchenko in turn based on Pushkin’s The Gypsies. It was premiered at the Bolshoi where it was performed in a double opera evening with Iolanta by Tchaikovsky. The latter was a composer Rachmaninov idolised and whose death Rachmaninov lamented in his Trio Elégiaque.

If you need another parallel then one of Rachmaninov's trilogy of one-act operas (of which Aleko is one) is Francesca da Rimini to a libretto by Modest Tchaikovsky brother to Tchaikovsky the composer. Tchaikovsky wrote his own tone poem on the Francesca story in the 1870s. Other Francesca works include full-blown operas by Goetz, Zandonai and Leoni and other orchestral tone poems, by the American, Arthur Foote and the Dane, Paul von Klenau.

The orchestral Introduction starts the opera in calm and tempered fashion. Then follows a chorus clearly indebted to the Polovtsian dances from Borodin's Prince Igor. Ah! … those magically distanced female voices and there's more sleepy enchantment to come in tr.7. The beguiling Polovtsi serenity carries over into The Women's Dance, widely excerpted including by Previn during the early days of the Rachmaninov revival in the 1970s. In The Men's Dance there's a touch of hard-bitten Mussorgskian brass. Rachmaninov also indulges what will be heard as pre-echoes of his Second Symphony. Evgeny Nesterenko can be relied on to be impressive and so he is. He works up plenty of calorific value as does the fiery Svetlana Volkova as Zemphira. In the duettino between Fedin and Volkova the temperature varies from a sort of fearful aspiration to hot-to-the touch ardour. The recording's excellent sense of depth is best exemplified in the Intermezzo. This must surely have caught the attention of many a Hollywood composer. It is a glorious piece well up to Classic FM standards and the harpist (Emilia Moskvitina) has grateful moments aplenty - even more so in the doomed Young Gypsy's Romance. The latter ballad recalls similar moments in Boughton's Immortal Hour. The Duet and Finale starts with the harp and full orchestral sigh of the Intermezzo. The opera ends in a selfless acceptance of rejection's inevitability - a passive end for a little shocker of an opera. It's a most romantic piece and Kitaenko does nothing to soften the blow.

James Murray, in his liner note, recounts that in 1897 Aleko premiered in St Petersburg, when the title role was taken by Feodor Chaliapin.

It has always seemed surprising to me that Rachmaninov wrote just these three operas. There's the incomplete Monna Vanna but that's it. Strange for a man who had stage-craft from his fingertips to his hardwiring.

The recording is laid out in 13 tracks not the 15 as claimed on the cover. There is a minor typo in the booklet: 'Nesetrenko' should be Nesterenko

There are other versions (Noseda, Järvi, Orbelian, Svetlanov, Fedoseyev, Golovanov, Chistiakov, Raichev) but this is a special reading and none of the others are at bargain price.

Rob Barnett


[1] Introduction [3:12]
[2] Chorus [4:17]
[3] The old man’s story (old man, chorus) [5:31]
[4] Scene and chorus (Aleko, Zemphira, young gypsy, chorus) [1:53]
[5] Women’s dance [3:51]
[6] Men’s dance [5:22]
[7] Chorus [3:37]
[8] Duettino (young gypsy, Zemphira) [2:39]
[9] Scene at the Cradle (Zemphira, Aleko) [4:19]
[10] Aleko’s Cavatina [5:51]
[11] Intermezzo [2:40]
[12] The young gypsy’s romance [1:27]
[13] Duet and finale (whole cast) [14:37]



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