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Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
Prince Igor (1890)
Igor Svyatoslavich: Dušan Popović (baritone); Yaroslavna: Valerija Heybal (soprano); Vladimir Igorevich: Noni Žunec (tenor); Vladimir Galitsky/Konchak: Žarko Cvejić (bass); Konchakovna: Melanija Bugarinović (mezzo-soprano); Ovlur: Dragutin Petrović (tenor); Skula: Dragomir Ninković (tenor); Yeroshka: Nikola Jančić (baritone); Yaroslavna’s Nurse/Polovtsian Maiden: Biserka Cvejić (mezzo-soprano)
Chorus & Orchestra of the Belgrade National Opera/Oscar Danon
rec. February 1955, House of Culture, Belgrade, Yugoslavia. ADD
ELOQUENCE 482 6935 [3 CDs: 205:33]

In an astounding burst of activity designed to enhance their new stereo catalogue very quickly, Decca made seven recordings of famous Russian operas in 1955 all with the Belgrade National Opera, of which this is the first; the remaining six will be released throughout 2018. Never previously released on CD, this Prince Igor is the first stereo recording and the second of only five studio recordings ever made.

The first, mono studio recording was a wholly authentic performance conducted in 1951 by the vastly experienced and idiomatic Melik-Pashayev. Heading the cast is the Andrei Ivanov, whose beautiful baritone sounds uncannily like that of Pavel Lisitsian, without quite that peerless singer's distinction or distinctiveness. There are also two great basses in Mark Reizen and Alexander Pirogov, the former reminding me why he is my favourite Russian bass with his amplitude and nobility of tone, the latter close to retirement, a little rocky and wholly cavalier about pitch, but very characterful and clearly having a high old time as the roué Galitsky. A fine cast is completed by famous soprano Evgenyia Smolenskaya, whose bell-like sound animates Yaroslavna, ample-voiced contralto Vera Borisenko and of course Sergei Lemeshev, singing as sensitively and sweetly as ever as Vladimir. The chorus and orchestra are clearly immersed in this music; they sing and play with gusto and commitment. However, it is in mono sound and the whole of Act 3 is missing, as was then customary, so cannot be primarily recommended; the same is true of Semkow’s 1966 recording starring Boris Christoff in the roles of both Prince Galitsky and Khan Konchak. This recording under review, however, is complete with Act3 and a reconstructed Act 4; its nearest competition must be Mark Ermler’s set made in Moscow in 1969, the Bulgarian recording under Tchakarov in 1987 and the 1993 live-composite Kirov performance conducted by Gergiev.

As is immediately apparent from the delivery of the pot-pourri overture, there is much spirited, energised playing from the orchestra here, even if string and woodwind tone is often harsh and intonation approximate. The Polovtsian Dances and Chorus interlude is splendid. The choir is very important in this, as in other Russian operas – almost another main character – and their singing is admirable in its unity and attack. The solo singing is mostly impressive, too; Dušan Popović has a noble, rich-voiced baritone but Žarko Cvejić, in the dual roles of Galitsky and Konchak, is no Boris Christoff; he is frequently hoarse, coarse and unsteady – but he certainly sounds the part of a drunken, lecherous reprobate. For some reason, he sounds a bit steadier as Konchak but compared with the best, he is still laboured. Valerija Heybal has a piercing, piping quality to her soprano – typically Russian and somewhat reminiscent of a young Vishnevskaya - which makes her sound young and vulnerable. Biserka Cvejić – still with us at 94 - sings soulfully as the Polovtsian Maiden and doubles up as the Nurse. Melanija Bugarinović was a celebrated Erda at Bayreuth and her singing rivals that of Obraztsova for depth and sonority; she negotiates the haunting melismata of her love-song with great authority and feeling. Noni Zunec has an unusual, distinctive, very Russian-sounding tenor – oddly nasal and bottled but not unattractive. I prefer a more conventionally robust sound such as Atlantov provides, or the lyric poetry of Lemeshev, but Zunec is interesting. The tenor who sings Ovlur has a more conventionally attractive voice, however.

Regarding alternative sets, Tchakarov’s recording is available on the bargain Brilliant label and is in many ways very good, especially in terms of the sound and the brilliance of the Sofia forces under Tchakarov's energised direction. Both chorus and orchestra are really impressive, singing and playing with huge verve and enthusiasm; the Polovtsian set pieces are very idiomatic: lilting and invigorating by turns. Some of the voices are, to put it kindly, in their later flowering but are still artists of note. Amongst these are veteran Bulgarian basses Ghiuselev and Ghiaurov, both a bit rough, rusty and unsteady of tone but also powerful and characterful as Galitsky and Khan Konchak respectively. Rather more elegant singing is provided by the smoothly authoritative bass-baritone Boris Martinovich, who also collaborated with Tchakarov in an excellent "Life for the Tsar" and as Rangoni in "Boris Godunov". It is possible to carp about some of the throatier comprimario tenor roles here and even lead tenor Kaludi Kaludov is at times a bit breathy and hoarse but he sings in very committed, convincing manner. The power of Stefka Evstatieva's soprano is occasionally compromised by the typical "Slavonic steam-whistle" effect she produces at forte but she is a compelling vocal actress. Some of the best singing may be heard in the stirring Third Act Trio for Konchakovna, Igoryevich and Prince Igor and also the touching aria for Yaroslavna which follows that, feelingly sung by Evstatieva with some pointed use of smoothly controlled dynamics. Alexandrina Milcheva is perfectly acceptable as Konchakovna and she has a serviceable lower register but her voice does not have the velvety, sensual power of such as Obraztsova for Mark Ermler.

I have always loved that Ermler recording and fail to understand why some critics have been so sniffy about it. The sound has been cleaned up very attractively; the bathroom acoustic has been tamed and it is now far less boxy. It is a wholly authentic, energised performance featuring a great Russian cast, orchestra and conductor; the music fairly leaps out of the speakers and the performers understand perfectly the idiom required: nothing too refined or precious but earthy and abandoned. The cast is the best that could be assembled by the Bolshoi in the late 60's and that is really good: the stentorian Atlantov, ringing of voice, Alexander Verdernikov (senior – his son is a conductor) and Artur Eisen reminding us of how real Russian basses sound, and Obraztsova rising to poetic heights in Konchakovna's haunting cavatina. Tugarinova is a bit shrill but she's a true, powerful Russian soprano. The chorus sing lustily and really bring their music alive.

Gergiev’s is a 'new performing edition by the Mariinsky theatre', which re-orders the music and includes additional material discovered among Borodin’s papers, such as an Act 3 aria for Igor and an alternative ending, rejected by Rimsky Korsakov and Glazunov when they completed and prepared the opera for performance after Borodin’s death. Apart from the intrinsic interest of hearing some rediscovered music which is nor necessarily an improvement over what we have become used to, this performance is not clearly better than any other and both the conducting and the singing have received some criticism in some quarters. However, there is a preponderance of fine voices here and I do not find Gergiev to be too driven. Furthermore. the sound is better, the Kirov Orchestra superior and the chorus excellent. Mikhail Kit as Igor and Ognovienko are both adequate and if Kit is not as imposing as some of his predecessors Ognovienko is preferable to Cvejić – although he is lacking in bottom notes. Gorchakova’s Yaroslavna is lovely – warm and powerful, without the harshness so often encountered with Russian sopranos. In addition, it is a bonus to have Olga Borodina as Konchakovna even if she doesn’t have quite the contralto depth I like to hear in this role. Gega Grigoriam is, in purely vocal terms, almost as good as Atlantov and in fact sings with more refinement.

This vintage recording is in decent, narrow but clean, early stereo sound, despite some faint pre and post-echo in the tape. It stands up well against Ermler, Tchakarov and Gergiev, without necessarily displacing them. My preference remains for the Ermler recording, especially as I find the contributions of Cvejić here a bit trying. The booklet contains a plot synopsis and an essay providing the historical context of the series of seven recordings.

Ralph Moore

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