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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Eugene Onegin
Tatyana Tugarinova- Madame Larina (soprano)
Tamara Milashkina - Tatyana (soprano)
Tamara Sinyavskaya - Olga (mezzo-soprano)
Larisa Avdeyeva – Filippyevna, a Nanny (contralto)
Yuri Mazurok - Eugene Onegin (baritone)
Vladimir Atlantov - Lensky (tenor)
Evgeny Nesterenko - Prince Gremin (bass)
Anton Djaparidze – Company Commander (baritone)
Valeri Yaroslavtsev - Zaretsky (bass)
Lev Kuznetsov - Monsieur Triquet (tenor)
Boris Mezhirovsky – Directing Singer (tenor)
USSR Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra and Chorus / Mark Ermler
rec. 1979, Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow
MELODIYA MELCD1002418 [68:56 + 71:39] ADD

There is no shortage of recommendable recordings of this favourite Russian opera: there is a seminal account conducted by Khaikin, but that is in mono sound, and there are two excellent “international” stereo recordings from Solti and Levine, but none of those features the absolutely ideal eponymous (anti-) hero – although Thomas Allen comes close, If I were to choose one baritone whose voice can encompass the vocal grace and elegance combined with hauteur required for the first Act, with the world-weariness of Act 2, then the desperation of Act 3, it would be the great Yuri Mazurok in what became his signature role. He has long been a favourite baritone: I had the privilege of hearing him on stage at his peak as a patrician Conte di Luna at the Royal Opera House and recently glowingly reviewed this recital album, also on the Melodiya label, which includes the Act I aria from the recording of this opera (review).

Mazurok may be heard as Onegin in as many as four live and three studio recordings, but obviously the latter is sonically more desirable. The earliest, conducted by Rostropovich in 1970 with four of the same singers as here nine years later, but with Galina Vishnevskaya as Tatyana, is by all accounts flawed and in any case currently unobtainable. The last, 1988 recording conducted by Tchakarov was made when Mazurok and his fellow lead singers were past their peak, so the recording under review remains the best option. Although made in 1979, it has the whiff of an earlier age about it; something to do with the rather harsh sound and an element of the old-fashioned "stand and sing" style in the delivery of the 100% Russian cast. No problems with uncertain accents or verbal inflections here; these are artists with the music in their blood. The offstage, gradually coming onstage, peasants’ chorus at the opening of Act 1 is splendid. As is often the case, the rather mature Tatyana - Tamara Milashkina, around fifty here - is more convincing as the married woman than the naive ingenue of the first act, but she does mostly successfully lighten her voice to begin with and despite a few shrill top notes delivers a sympathetic portrayal very much in the style of a young Vishnevskaya, her rival and compatriot. She made a poor Tosca in the studio recording three years earlier with the same tenor and baritone partners but is on much safer ground with Tchaikovsky than with Puccini. She was clearly an intelligent artist and compensates for her occasional lack of vocal allure by her identification with a role which suits her voice type, where her slightly “ingolato” vocal production suits the idiom.

Her Onegin was blessed with an exceptionally attractive, vibrant, light baritone, yet Mazurok could be a maddeningly stand-offish singer, sometimes failing to make much effort to complement his beauty of tone with a comparable depth of characterisation, Here, however, he adopts a slow-burn approach, rather like the performance as a whole, so that by the time we get to that unbearably poignant final meeting of the deux amants manqués their desperation is palpable. Milashkina's real-life husband, Vladimir Atlantov, is as stentorian and hard of tone as ever, with little of the poet about him, but his tenor is admirably firm and secure. The slight break in his voice credibly suggests Lensky's instability and immaturity and manages a lovely diminuendo at the end of his big aria. The Olga, Tamara Sinyavskaya, has a rich, vibrant mezzo-soprano. Nesterenko's resonant bass gives us a lovely vignette of Gremin, although no-one in my experience has approached the grave sincerity and nobility of Ghiaurov's bass except the mighty Mark Reizen.

Mark Ermler knows just how this piece should go, making the right contrasts between the provincial jollity of the dance music in the Larin household and the frenetic brilliance of the St Petersburg society ball - and speaking of provincial, there are fewer such moments from the orchestra than one might have feared, despite some quavery horns and wobbly strings, and they, too, really get the bit between their teeth in the final scene. It's a pity, however, that Monsieur Triquet's couplets plod and that he doesn't sing them in French, as he should; Michel Sénéchal for Solti is ideal, brining out the comedy and charm of this cameo role and singing exquisitely.

This Melodiya remastering has tamed a lot of that peaking that marred the original and subsequent CD issues and provided a warmer ambiance. Voices are very forward and “in your face” but instrumental detail is still apparent. The standard, attractive Melodiya cardboard digipack provides notes and track listings in Russian, French and English but no synopsis, let alone a libretto.

As a whole, this might not be a set to rival the excitement of Khaikin's famous 1955 mono recording or to match the brilliance of Solti's 1974 set, but it is a thoroughly authentic and enjoyable version of this wonderful opera and mandatory for admirers of Yuri Mazurok.

(Incidentally, the super-bargain Alto label issued this recording in 2009 as a “First issue in the West” but miscredited the conducting to Gennady Cherkasov and mistakenly gave the recording date as 1984. The sound is superior in this Melodiya re-issue, in any case.)

Ralph Moore

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