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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Kashchei the Immortal (Kashchei Bessmyertnyi) (1902)
Kashchei - Pavel Pontryagin
Tsarevna Beloved Beauty - Natalya Rozhdestvenskaya
Berya Bogatyr (Storm Knight) - Konstantin Polyaev
Kashcheyevna - Lyudmila Legostayeva
Prince Ivan - Pavel Lisitsian
Grand Academic Choir & Grand Symphony Orchestra of All-Union National Radio Service and Central Television Networks/Samuil Samosud
rec. 1949
MELODIYA MELCD1002605 [71:34]

This first-ever issue of the 1949 recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera marks the 175th anniversary of his birth. Melodiya issued a different performance on LP in 1972 (D 032117-20, and there was a CD reissue in 2003 on Aquarius AVQR 133-2); the cast was the same as here, except for Vera Gradova as Tsarevna and Antonina Kleshchova as Kashcheyevna. Unusually, that performance was undated but it cannot have been much different than the 1949 of the present one.

The story in the opera, like seven of Rimsky’s fifteen operas, is based on a Russian fairytale. Like almost all such traditional stories, this one has several different versions. The libretto, which was written by the composer himself, makes major changes which are Rimsky’s own inventions. He adds the character of Kashchei’s daughter, the seemingly emotionally frozen Kashcheyevna, and the central plot device of his death being hidden in her tears. (In most traditional versions, it is hidden in an egg which is itself hidden in various combinations of strange places.) Kashcheyevna falls in love with Prince Ivan. She weeps because she softens at seeing the love between him and the Tsarevna, thereby making Kashchei’s death the result of compassion rather than the usual “knight in shining armour fight evil and wins the day”. It is an opera very much in tune with the zeitgeist of our times.

The star here is the great Soviet baritone Pavel Lisitsian, the son of a mineworker born in Armenia in 1911. His voice was discovered when he joined a choir, and, backed by a local workers’ co-operative, in 1932 he entered the Leningrad Conservatory where he studied for three years. He made his debut at the Maly Theatre in 1935 and by 1940 had become a soloist at the Bolshoi in Moscow, where he remained a leading company member for the rest of his stage career. Most of his career took place during the Stalin era and subsequent Cold War, but he did appear in the West during the thaw after Stalin’s death. He sang in America in 1960, singing a solitary Amonasro in Aida at the Met on 3 March 1960 and some recitals in San Francisco. He was also a member of the Bolshoi company that visited La Scala in 1964, singing Yelestsky in Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades and Napoleon in Prokofiev’s War and Peace. He retired from the Bolshoi at the surprisingly early age of 55 in 1966, but continued to give recitals, including in a quartet with other family members. As a native Armenian, he accepted a teaching post at the Yerevan Conservatoire where he remained for six years from 1967. He died in2004 at the age of 92.

Lisitsian is rightly regarded as one of the great voices of the 20th century. Although not particularly large, his lyric baritone was of a burnished, mahogany splendour right up to the top A flat of the Pagliacci Prologue, and without a hint of spread. His tuning was spot on, and his legato was a marvel. The singer whom he most reminds me of is Jussi Björling; both had absolutely seamless voices, there was no hint of chest and head registers, the timbre was utterly consistent and uniform from top to bottom. He is also like Björling in that his glory is essentially a vocal one; both singers are largely content simply to provide an unending flow of golden tone, only occasionally providing any great interpretative insights. They are never for a second unmusical, but rarely do they seem to have any deep personal commitment to the words or music. In Prince Ivan’s role, these traits are in evidence, and a comparison with Alexander Gergalov in the Gergiev recording is instructive. Gergalov does not have half of the vocal glamour of Lisitsian, but his performance is full of detailed response to the text which quite pass Lisitsian by. However, even putting voice to one side, it is not all in Gergalov’s favour. Lisitsian has a lyrical momentum which Gergalov’s more detailed approach vitiates. Listen, for example, to the short arioso at Ivan’s entrance “O slushai, noch” (O hear me, night). Lisitsian’s commanding line is more musically satisfying than Gergalov’s more intellectually subtle, but rather underwhelming, approach. In the more heroic aspects, for example “Nye boisya, ya s toboi” (Do not fear, I am with you) after the duet with the Princess in Tableau 3, the points all go to Lisitsian. Nor is Lisitsian unaware of subtleties; his pianissimo at the end of the duet where Kashcheyevna puts him to sleep is magical.

The other singers will be pretty well unknown to all but those with a real interest in Russian singers of the past. Natalya Rozhdestvenskaya, the mother of Gennady Rozhdestvensky (one of his posts was chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1978-1981), was essentially a concert singer rather than an operatic one, but she did sing in a considerable number of concert performances of opera. She has a very solid, well-produced voice without the stridency that can be a feature of Soviet sopranos. Her characterisation is good, but without the detail one would hope for; for example, in her opening lament, she does not fully convey the Tsarevna’s sadness and longing. Her dynamic range is comparatively limited, though her articulation of the text is excellent. She is distinctly preferable to the shrill, back-of-the-throat timbre of Vera Gradova in the other Soviet recording on Aquarius.

The role of Kashcheyevna is sung by the even less well remembered Lyudmila Legostayeva. Her mezzo voice is very impressive, and like Lisitsian she is better in the more martial parts such as the sword sharpening. In her opening solo, there is insufficient contrast between the initial description of the night and the gathering of the flowers and herbs to make the magic potion. There is also a lack of the sensuality needed for her welcome to Ivan and the duet. However, she is excellent in her desperation when she pleads with Ivan to stay with her, and her softening at the end when she sees the love between the Tsarevna and Ivan is beautifully managed. This time, however, the alternative on Aquarius, Antonina Kleshchova, is preferable. She has a charismatic presence and commitment which go well beyond Legostayeva. Kleshchova is a truly commanding singer of whom I would like to hear a lot more.

Kashchei himself is a part for a character tenor with some heft, like that of Mime in The Ring. Pavel Pontryagin is very fine in the part; his thin, nasal tone is just what the role requires and his characterisation is very good. He really captures the sardonic tone and is compelling in his solo scene “Prirodi postignuta taina” (I have penetrated the mysteries of nature) at the end of Tableau 1. Had The Ring been performed in Russia during his career, I could see him as an outstanding Mime. Konstantin Polyaev’s Storm Knight is rather woolly and throaty, with a distinctly effortful top, but he puts over effectively the blustering, semi-comic character of the part.

Samosud’s conducting is very fine, as one would expect. I was very surprised when I started to make comparisons with the Gergiev recording. Samosud’s timing was 71 minutes (the Aquarius performance is slightly shorter at 69 minutes), but Gergiev takes only 63 minutes – a very substantial difference in such a short piece. Both performances work entirely successfully, however. Samosud’s orchestra display that characteristic Russian sound which has unfortunately largely disappeared today but which was still fully in place when the Kirov visited Covent Garden in 1989. It may be a little unsubtle, especially in the brass, but my God is it exciting.

If we put recording quality to one side, the main alternative to this issue is the 1995 recording conducted by Gergiev. This has an excellent cast, and the comments I made when comparing Lisitsian with Gergalov are essentially true of the other cast members. I heard Marina Shaguch (Tsarevna) on several occasions in the 1990s, including a solo recital and also a joint recital with Diadkova at the Wigmore Hall, and she was a truly lovely soprano. I never understood why her career did not achieve the heights of so many other Kirov-based singers who flooded the West after the end of communism. She brings a fragility and sadness to the role of Tsarevna which neither Rozhdestvenskaya nor Gradova manage. Her singing is full of exactly the detail that I found missing in them. Diadkova, of course, did go on to a major career in the West, especially at the Met. I will never forget her singing of Mussorgsky’s “Songs and Dances of Death” at the Wigmore Hall. My first reaction on seeing the programme was “Oh, not again”, but it was the most utterly compelling, spine-chilling performance I have ever heard. She brings the same ear for detail and subtlety to her performance of Kashcheyevna, though the comparison here is not quite so one-sided. She was never a “sock it to ’em” singer in the way that Aquarius’s Kleshchova was, and in this role I think that is what is ideally needed. The honours are pretty equal between Pontryagin and Pluzhnikov, with the palm perhaps going by a whisker to Pluzhnikov. As far as the conducting goes, although Gergiev takes it so much quicker than Samosud, only in the Tsarevna’s opening lament did I find it to be too fast (and, though he is slower, I also thought Samosud was too fast here). Otherwise for his greater tightness and dynamism I prefer Gergiev, though surprisingly Samosud makes the climax of the opera even more cataclysmic.

Given the date and provenance of this performance, the recording quality of this issue is remarkably good. Tamara Pavlova and Nadezhda Radugina have done a superb restoration job; there is none of the fuzz round the voices which can be such an annoying aspect of Soviet recordings of this period, and though the orchestra is rather recessed, it comes over with considerable vividness and dynamic range. I have often wondered whether the recordings of this period were made on German tape recorders taken back to Russia from Berlin after the war along with so many German radio recordings by the likes of Furtwängler. Certainly no Soviet recordings before 1945 have anything like this quality.

The CD comes in a digipack whose booklet in Russian and English contains an interesting essay about the piece and a plot summary, but no libretto. Although it is best seen as an adjunct to the Gergiev, this issue is fascinating and gives considerable pleasure, and not only for the glorious sound of Lisitsian’s voice.

Paul Steinson

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