24 August 2009

CD REVIEW: Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky [Чайко́вский] – YEVGENY ONEGIN [Евгений Онегин] (Y. Mazurok, T. Milashkina, V. Atlantov, Y. Nesterenko; alto)

Tchaikovsky: YEVGENY ONEGIN (alto) PYOTR ILYCH TCHAIKOVSKY / Пётр Ильи́ч Чайко́вский (1840 – 1893): Yevgeny Onegin / Евгений Онегин, Op. 24: Y. Mazurok (Yevgeny Onegin), T. Milashkina (Tatyana), V. Atlantov (Lensky), Y. Nesterenko (Gremin), T. Sinyavskaya (Olga), T. Tugarinova (Larina), L. Avdeeva (Filippyevna), L. Kuznetsov (Triquet), V. Yaroslavtsev (Zaretsky); Chorus and Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow; Gennady Cherkasov [recorded in Radio Studio 5, Moscow, in 1984(?); alto 2007]

In 1979, the officially sanctioned record label of the Soviet Union, Melodiya, brought together four of the Bolshoi Theatre’s leading singers – Yuri Mazurok, Tamara Milashkina, Vladimir Atlantov, and Yevgeny Nesterenko – with Mark Ermler, a popular conductor at the Bolshoi who would briefly serve as the Company’s Music Director two decades later, to record Tchaikovsky’s towering masterwork of lyric theatre, Yevgeny Onegin.  Both Mazurok and Atlantov had recorded their respective roles before, along with Tamara Sinyavskaya’s Olga, in a studio recording of Onegin conducted by the great ‘cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and featuring his wife, Galina Vishnevskaya, as Tatyana.  Critical response to the Melodiya recording was largely unfavorable, particularly when the new set was compared with the Rostropovich recording and the 1956 performance conducted by Boris Khaikin in which the unsurpassed Tatyana of the youthful Vishnevskaya was preserved.  The circumstances under which the present recording was made therefore remain somewhat mysterious.  Released, according to the accompanying liner notes, for the first time outside of Russian by the alto label in an indisputably good mastering by Paul Arden-Taylor, this Yevgeny Onegin may be fresh to the field despite its vintage.

An examination of the forces involved in the recording and the venue in which the performance is said to have been recorded introduces further questions.  An admired professor at the Moscow Conservatory for nearly fifty years, Gennady Cherkasov (1930 – 2002) was for an extended period the de facto artistic director of the musical enterprises of USSR Radio and Television, and the bulk of his recordings were made either with USSR Radio forces or the Moscow Philharmonic.  The matter of the provenance of this recording is further complicated by the fact that the choral and orchestral forces of the Bolshoi Theatre, the cited performers in this performance, were most often recorded in that Theatre, their manners of singing and playing having been trained specially for the acoustical ambience of the Bolshoi.  If truly recorded in Moscow’s Radio Studio 5 under Maestro Cherkasov’s baton, it would be far more likely that the chorus and orchestra would have been those of the USSR Radio.

There remains, too, the obvious question of why another recording of Yevgeny Onegin with the same principals recorded by Melodiya in 1979 (three of whom, as previously noted, had recorded their roles in 1970 for Rostropovich) would have been thought artistically necessary or commercially viable.  A compact-disc reissue (from LP transfers) of the 1979 Yevgeny Onegin by an independent European label erroneously cited Gennady Cherkasov rather than Mark Ermler as the conductor of that recording, a mistake detected and revealed to the record-buying public by the French publication Diapason.  Is it possible, then, that a similar unintentional corruption is responsible for the ambiguous information concerning the present release?  Even if this is the case, what information suggested to the editorial staff of that small European label that Cherkasov could have been the conductor of the performance in question?  Unfortunately, information concerning the recording’s principal artists is sketchy at best, as is often the case with singers whose careers were mostly made in theatres in the Soviet Union, and comprehensive discographies of Yevgeny Onegin offer few clues.

Sadly, the Rostropovich Yevgeny Onegin, originally recorded for EMI, was available only briefly on compact discs in France in a transfer by the Chant du Monde label, a release that was likely quite limited and is now virtually impossible to find.  Though Melodiya have recently reissued many of their classic operatic recordings, the 1979 Ermler Yevgeny Onegin has thus far been passed over in justifiable preference for the Khaikin recording with Vishnevkaya’s near-ideal Tatyana.  Having heard only murky-sounding excerpts from Ermler’s recording on a compact disc clandestinely transferred from a scratchy LP is a poor standard for comparison when trying to determine whether the performance issued by alto is, in fact, the Ermler recording in another guise.  There is, after all, a precedent for this sort of duplicity in Melodiya’s catalogue: the voice of George London was dubbed over the master tapes of an earlier recording of Boris Godunov with Ivan Petrov, conducted by Alexander Melik-Pasheyev, in order to manufacture a souvenir of London’s triumphant Bolshoi performances as the troubled tsar.  Comparing those dim-sounding excerpts from Ermler’s performance with the present recording, there are reference points that suggest both that the two recordings do indeed contain the same performance.  Whatever the truth concerning this ‘new’ Onegin from alto may be, the recording presents the casual musical detective with a muddle of which Dame Agatha Christie could have been proud.

If this is the 1979 Ermler recording, resuscitated and re-attributed to Gennady Cherkasov, the performance proves more interesting than critical response to the original Melodiya issue indicated.  Though a national institution, it must be admitted that the Bolshoi forces are not to Russian repertory what the orchestras and choirs of La Scala and the Wiener Staatsoper are to their respective national traditions.  Precision of attack and accuracy of intonation are not always readily evident in Bolshoi performances, but instances of sloppiness are often easily forgotten when the results of imperfect execution are exciting, idiomatic performances.  Except perhaps in the ball scene and the final confrontation between Onegin and Tatyana, Yevgeny Onegin is not a score in which overt excitement is paramount.  An element of the irony inherent in the score is found in Tchaikovsky’s juxtaposition of the passionate emotional tempests that rage internally with the pastoral scenes, quaint country manners, and courtly demeanors that mask them.  Even a scene as poignant as the duel in which Onegin kills Lensky is stark and bitter rather than outwardly impassioned.  The Bolshoi forces understand this irony, the chorus taking particular care to sing with refinement and understatement that are not always obvious weapons in their arsenal.  A few instances of suspect intonation and haphazard balance aside, the orchestra play very well indeed, the woodwinds especially making amends for many of the sins of their Soviet predecessors.  Above all, the singing and playing are quintessentially Russian, a valuable quality even in a score by a composer as innately cosmopolitan as Tchaikovsky.

Based upon his pedigree, there is no reason to think that Maestro Cherkasov should not have had Yevgeny Onegin well in hand.  His recorded work reveals a capable technician with a flair for handling complex orchestrations on large scales.  Whether it is his work or Ermler’s, there are many fine points to this performance.  The great third-act Polonaise is paced superbly and is integrated into the flow of the performance – as it rarely is – as music ideal for dancing.  Atypically, the listener very much gets the sense of the curtain rising on a ripping party in progress.  Prince Gremin’s aria also stays within the natural progression of the performance, avoiding the common pitfall of being an action-stalling star turn.  The final scene builds momentum gradually, reaching its climax without running out of steam or seeming vulgar.  Earlier on, there are occasional lapses in judgment: far too much is made of the couplets of Monsieur Triquet, for instance, which in this performance are treated almost as exalted utterances from a Gluck opera.  The sense that tragedy looms is palpable, but the humor – ironic or otherwise – of the scene is lost, as well as its charm.  Fortunately, such missteps are infrequent and largely afflict moments of lesser importance.  If the Letter Scene is somewhat deliberate, it at least avoids the almost hysterical rushing heard in many performances.  The performance as a whole, whether it is conducted by Ermler or Cherkasov, is effective and enjoyable without being exceptional.  It gracefully avoids the idiosyncrasies imposed on the music by ‘star’ conductors, however.  Despite some truly memorable vocal performances in the opera’s recorded history, it is interesting to note that no single maestro lingers in the memory as the ideal conductor of Yevgeny Onegin.

Smaller roles on this recording are mostly entrusted to capable artists, producing assured performances.  Mezzo-soprano Tamara Sinyavskaya, another Onegin veteran, is a rather fruity Olga but one well within the drama, complementing her sister Tatyana rather than audibly seeking to outshine her.  Tatyana Tugarinova and Larisa Avdeeva are authoritative as Larina, Olga’s and Tatyana’s mother, and Filippyevna, their nanny, as only singers immersed in the Russian tradition can be.  As Monsieur Triquest, tenor Lev Kuznetsov sings his music as though auditioning for the Simpleton in Boris Godunov, but his voice is steady and pleasant.

The Prince Gremin of Yevgeny Nesterenko is less ostentatious than is often the case.  In particular, Nesterenko sings the beautiful third-act aria with tenderness that, for once, meaningfully depicts the aging Prince’s affection for his young wife.  Nesterenko’s voice is in good condition, and as with so many Slavic artists he is perceptibly more in his element here than in his recordings of non-Russian repertory.  Nesterenko’s is not a Gremin who touches the heart with special insights or uncommon dignity, but the performance is refreshingly free of the disproportionate grandstanding that is as common among recordings of the role as among theatrical performances.

The Onegin of Polish-born baritone Yuri Mazurok is a well-documented creation: recorded in the studio for Rostropovich and Ermler, perhaps for Cherkasov, and again for Vladimir Fedoseyev (for Moscow Radio) and Emil Tchakarov, it is impossible to have explored the Onegin discography in the final quarter of the twentieth century without encountering Mazurok’s interpretation of the title role.  In this performance, Mazurok’s seasoned familiarity with his role is evident, and admittedly an element of routine is discernible.  Mazurok’s voice is well-proportioned for his music, however, and he does not over-sing the role.  Onegin is a dangerous part in that it demands a careful balance of intellectual involvement and easy, beautiful vocalism: lured into the trap of focusing his attention solely or mostly on ‘interpreting’ the role, a baritone can easily overlook the fact that Onegin’s music is quite demanding.  Though it is possible to question why Mazurok’s portrayal of Onegin merited preservation on so many recordings, it is a well-considered, idiomatic performance that, in this recording at least, impresses.  The requisite arrogance is there, but not in quantities great enough to render the character unredeemably off-putting, and the abandon with which Mazurok sings the final scene appropriately conveys Onegin’s desperation.  If not a bar-raising Onegin, this is nonetheless a very good one that outclasses performances by many baritones more famous for the role in the West.

By the time of this recording, whether it was 1979 or 1984, Vladimir Atlantov had a decade of experience in heavy dramatic tenor roles behind him.  Atlantov was for nearly two decades the Bolshoi’s leading portrayer of Verdi’s Otello, a role he performed at the MET on three memorable occasions in the spring of 1994.  Following in the tradition of the brilliant (if politically unsavory) Georgi Nelepp, Atlantov emerged in the early 1970’s as Russia’s finest spinto tenor, his voice blessed with an Italianate ring and a thrilling upper extension.  Hermann in Tchaikovsky’s Pikovaya Dama, a role considerably more demanding than Lensky, was perhaps Atlantov’s finest role.  Lensky, usually the property of more lyric voices (not least the fine Russian tenor Ivan Kozlovsky and, especially in German-language performances, the great Slovenian tenor Anton Dermota), was nonetheless a frequent role for Atlantov during the early years of his career in Russia.  His singing in this performance is slightly too large for the music despite laudable efforts at reducing the thrust of the voice, particularly in the upper register.  Unfortunately, this conscious attempt at singing the role on an appropriate scale leads to occasional insecurity and reliance on falsetto: to his credit, Atlantov knows that Lensky should have a modulated, honeyed tone in precisely the part of the voice in which Atlantov’s power and squillo were so impressive in dramatic roles.  Atlantov’s Lensky is without question more passionate than poetic, but he is a credible presence in the drama.  Though neither the great second-act aria nor the duel scene finds Atlantov at his best, his contributions to the scene in which Onegin incites Lensky’s jealous anger, leading to the duel, by flirting with Olga – Lensky’s most declamatory music in the score – are exhilarating.  Though falling short of the standard of the finest lyric tenors in the role, Atlantov’s Lensky in this recording is an alert, convincing performance by one of Russia’s greatest singers.

This recording of Yevgeny Onegin brought Atlantov together with his wife, Tamara Milashkina, an accomplished and admired soprano for whom Tatyana was a frequent role during her Bolshoi career.  Most of the critical commentary by Western observers throughout Milashkina’s career – or what was known of her work through her Melodiya recordings whilst she sang behind the Iron Curtain – was harsh, with writers objecting even in considering her early recordings to a voice that they heard as dull, matronly, and worn.  She was a favorite with Soviet audiences, however, and in addition to earning acclaim in the expected Russian roles was for more than a decade the Bolshoi’s Tosca of choice.  [She was, in fact, twice  recorded as Tosca; in Russian in either 1964 or 1967, depending upon which source one consults, and in Italian in 1976, opposite Atlantov’s Cavaradossi.]  Milashkina’s voice (as recorded, at least) was not an exquisitely beautiful instrument after the models of Marcella Pobbe and Renata Tebaldi, but her recordings are almost entirely free of the ‘Slavic wobble’ that infests the singing oTamara Milashkinaf many sopranos born east of the Danube.  Like her colleagues in this performance, Milashkina approaches her role honestly and with complete preparation.  The tingling intensity of Yelena Kruglikova and the young Vishnevskaya is absent, but subtlety informs Milashkina’s singing throughout the performance.  If Tatyana does not undergo in Milashkina’s hands either the sexual awakening depicted by Kruglikova or the intellectual transformation so vividly portrayed by Vishnevskaya, she is a less reticent girl from the start, a slight hint of slyness asserting itself in the more inward moments.  Milashkina does not attempt to create a complicated psychological drama in the Letter Scene but instead focuses on observing all of Tchaikovsky’s instructions and loading the voice into her lines with precision.  Here and elsewhere in her performance a tendency to deliver expansive lines as a series of individual phrases is bothersome, and there is a slightly pallid quality to the highest tones (though this may result as much or more from the engineering than from Milashkina’s vocal estate).  What Milashkina offers is a Tatyana sung without gimmicks, a straightforward performance that holds few surprises but also few disappointments.

As recently as forty years ago, opera aficionados expected to hear Russian operas sung in Russian only by Russian-born or –trained singers.  Record collectors knew the classic Melodiya recordings sung in Russian and otherwise enjoyed local performances of Russian repertory in their own vernacular languages.  This was likewise the case in Russia, where all performances at the Bolshoi – regardless of the origins of the scores – were sung in Russian until virtually the end of the Soviet era.  Increasingly since the cultural and political liberation of the Eastern Bloc, however, artists from all nations, trained after a fashion that minimizes nationalistic distinctions, sing operas from all sectors of the operatic repertory in their original languages.  Compelling arguments exist on both sides of the issue of preferring original-language performances in major opera houses, but there is an undeniable benefit in hearing an opera like Yevgeny Onegin sung in Russian, the linguistic rhythm of the music honored.  A significant measure of the stylistic integrity of the score is lost when it is performed by non-Russian singers singing in Russian, no matter how well they sing or how meticulously they have worked out their diction.  With that consideration in mind, this recording of Yevgeny Onegin is valuable as one of the last examples of the once-plentiful performances derived from the nationalistic, repertory-based system prevalent in the first three quarters of the twentieth century.  Hopefully, the sophistication gained from the newer, international method of singing means that Soviet-era recordings are no longer summarily dismissed as provincial.  There are to this recording of Yevgeny Onegin whiffs of the steppes and perhaps even of bourgeois frustration, but these would not have been foreign to Tchaikovsky.  A committed performance such as this, idiomatically sung and enacted by singers who both knew their music and how to sing it, proves surprisingly competitive.  All that remains is for some musical Miss Marple to sort out the precise details of the Who, What, When, Where, and Why.