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Rolando Villazon (tenor)
Ildar Abdrazakov (bass)
Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
rec. 2016, Paroisse Saint-Nom-de-Jesus, Montréal
Sung texts with German, English and French translations enclosed
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 6901 [61:22]

There is one obvious problem with this recital, and that is that Ildar Abdrazakov is a strong, dark dramatic bass, superb as the Mefistofeles and Fiesco but lacking the baritonal lightness for the Bizet and Donizetti excerpts. I will modify this verdict in a moment, but first let me concentrate on the heavy numbers. The Boito Mefistofele is certainly a formidable character and Abdrazakov makes him truly spine-chilling. He delivers a dashing Son lo spirit and the whistling is devilish. Who, by the way, is the whistler? The other Devil, Gounod’s Méphistophéles, also a magnificent impersonation that evokes memories of either of Boris Christoff’s recordings from the 1950s. Abdrazakov’s delivery is smoother than Christoff’s but his singing is no less expressive and he avoids the sometimes ugly and hollow tone of the Bulgarian. Neither Christoff nor his model Chaliapin can be regarded as quite idiomatic from a French point of view, and the best exponent of this in recent times is no doubt José Van Dam. He, on the other hand, can seem slightly bloodless in comparison. Ghiaurov and Nesterenko are other important Slavonic singers of the role in the near past, and Abdrazakov fits well into their ranks. This scene makes me wish that he will commit the complete role to discs one day.

A role he has already done complete is Fiesco in Simon Boccanegra (review) and he is magnificent there. So he is here as well, and he is particularly admirably when scales down and sings Vieni a me, ti benedico (tr. 9) so softly and beautifully. This is really touching. Readers who would have liked to hear him in the famous aria Il lacerato spirito after having heard him to good effect in the short excerpts here should know that the complete recording, besides Abdrazakov, also boasts the late lamented Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the title role.

The Carmen excerpt is the only confrontation between Escamillo and Don José, taking place in the smugglers’ camp in the mountains. Escamillo is searching for his new love, Carmen, and is nearly killed by the guard Don José. When it dawns on Don José that here is a rival he challenges him to a duel. Naïve is certainly the word for José attack a professional bull-fighter with a knife! His life is saved when the other smugglers come to his rescue, but the music is cut short before that. Abdrazakov is a fiery Escamillo and the scene is spine-chilling, in spite of the scene being a bleeding chunk.

So far so good, but returning to the opening number of the disc, Bizet’s Pearl-fisher duet we are posed with the problem I mentioned above. Zurga is a strong character but he is also a baritone, and a rather lyrical baritone at that. Björling – Merrill and Gedda – Blanc from the 50s and 60s are superb models, in particular the latter couple who sing the complete duet, while Björling – Merrill’s version is truncated. Abdrazakov sounds more like a Boris Godunov gone astray. He sings all the music extremely well and he has all the nuances but he is – astray. As Don Pasquale he sounds the age of the character, even adopting a drier tone, and he is nimble enough, but I lack the smoothness of tone and flexibility of, say, Bruscantini. The same goes for his Dulcamara in L’elisir d’amore. Excellent singing and acting but again his tone is less than ingratiating. Fernando Corena’s more robust delivery on that legendary 50s recording with Di Stefano sounds more like the real thing. I know I may be partial to these oldies and unfair to Ildar Abdrazakov. Objectively I can’t find any faults at all with his singing – unless I occasionally think he is a little monochrome. But that is, on the other hand, a characteristic one can accuse almost any singer of.

So far I have written not a word about Rolando Villazon’s contribution. Going through my reviews, stretching back to the middle of the 2000s, I found a lot of recitals with him, including a duet disc recorded in 2006. His duet partner then was Anna Netrebko, with whom he frequently appeared on stage and on records. He was in glorious form then, but only a year after that he started having voice trouble and had to undergo surgery. After that his career has been uneven, but the last few years he has been involved in Deutsche Grammophon’s Mozart opera project conducted by Yannick Nézt-Séguin, also as singer, and this is repertoire that differs greatly from what he became famous for. But he was never afraid of making excursions into new repertoire and made for instance a splendid disc with Handel arias.

On the present disc he has been careful to take on roles of typical lyrical character, and there he is still a singer to reckon with. In the Pearl-fisher duet he has to be compared with Björling, Simoneau, Gedda and Kraus, and his lyrical, nuanced and at the same time brilliant singing is fully worthy of their company. He is glorious as Faust in the Mefistofele scene, a role that was one of Beniamino Gigli’s early successes. In the Don Pasquale scene he excels in suave bel canto singing. Sogno soave e casto is a lesson to any lyrical tenor student in fine legato and subtle nuances. This also goes for his Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore, a role he has done on a very recommendable DVD with Maria Bayo. His plaintive tone suits Gabriele in Simon Boccanegra and he is a youthful Faust in Gounod’s opera. He is also a vivid Don José in the duel scene from Carmen.

The concluding, non-operatic numbers are chosen to represent the popular music from their respective countries. Agustín Lara’s Granada from 1932 is probably one of the most recorded songs of its kind. Mario Lanza was not the first to record it but he put it on the map, so to speak. Villazon is lyrical and nuanced as always. Ochi chernye, “Dark eyes” in English, is probably the most famous Russian song, but according to Russian sources it is a "Gypsy romance based on the melody of Florian Hermann's Valse Hommage.” And here the little known Frenchman is credited as composer. Here Ildar Abdrazakov is very warm and inward in his mother-tongue. It constitutes a brilliant finale to this duet recital, where Yannick Nézet-Séguin draws excellent playing from his Canadian orchestra. It might be argued that some of the excerpts are rather pointless dislodged from their context, but on the other hand they can inspire listeners to search out the complete works.

In spite of my demurring above I find this an attractive recital with two of the best present-day singers in stimulating cooperation.

Göran Forsling

Georges BIZET (1838 – 1875)
Les Pêcheurs de perles:
1. C’etait le soir … Au fond du temple saint [6:43]
Arrigo BOITO (1842 – 1918)
2. Son lo spirito che nega [3:39]
3. Strano figlio del caos [5:34]
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848)
Don Pasquale:
4. La vostra ontinazione ... Prender moglie? [1:43]
5. Sogno soave e casto [6:01]
L’elisir d’amore:
6. Ardir! Ha forse il cielo [0:58]
7. Voglio dire [7:38]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901)
Simon Boccanegra:
8. Propoizio ei giunge! [2:39]
9. Vieni a me, ti benedico [2:31]
Charles GOUNOD (1818 – 1893)
10. Mais de Dieu, que peut-il pour moi? [1:26]
11. Me voici! D’où vient ta surprise? [9:17]
Georges BIZET
12. Je suis Escamillo [5:31]
Agustín LARA (1897 – 1970)
13. Granada (arr Julian Reynolds) [4:16]
Florian HERMANN (? - ?)
14. Ochi chernye (arr Joshua Reynolds) [3:26]



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