A very satisfying account of an elusive opera
Ralph Moore | Bishop's Stortford, UK | 11/15/2009
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This 1991 recording was made during carefully prepared live performances in the Symphony Hall and Carnegie Hall under Ozawa. The cast is interesting: the new young Russian star Hvorostovsky, established Russian singers Leiferkus and Atlantov, the two veteran ladies Mirella Freni and Maureen Forrester more renowned in other genres and who specialised in Italian and German repertoire respectively, under the direction of a Japanese conductor with an American orchestra and chorus. This eclectic mix might have led to something of a dog's breakfast stylistically speaking, yet, just as Solti was able to do with an international cast for his celebrated 1974 recording of "Eugene Onegin", Ozawa produces something hardly less authentic to my ears than Gergiev's all-Russian version with the Kirov opera and orchestra recorded in the Marinsky Theatre only six months later. Just listen to how he generates a febrile atmosphere of expectation in the introduction to the crucial scene where Hermann accosts the aged Countess in her bedchamber to extract from her the secret of the "tri karty".
It is perhaps less surprising that Freni is able successfully to surmount the linguistic challenges of singing Lisa given that her husband was Russian-speaking Bulgarian Nicolai Ghiaurov. Her voice at this later stage of her career is slightly larger and blowsier, with a marginally wider vibrato (the result of having moved into lirico-spinto roles such as Elisabetta in "Don Carlo") and thus by no means unsuited to producing a "Russian" sound. It is still a beautiful instrument and she sounds very much at home in Tchaikovsky's sound world. Beauty is not the salient characteristic of Atlantov's big, grainy tenor but he is right inside the part of the unstable Herman and occasionally tames that blaring sound to produce something subtler. Leiferkus seems to be enjoying himself singing Tomsky and uses his hard-edged baritone to bring the character vivdly to life. Forrester is splendidly theatrical as the world-weary Countess and Hvorostovsky sounds as virile and soulful as you would expect in the small but important role of Yeletsky - yet he certainly does not outshine previous superb exponents of the part such as Lisitsian and Mazurok and one is always conscious that he is pushing his lovely, but relatively small, voice to its limits in that peach of high baritone arias, "Ya vas lublu". (In fact he sounds richer and more secure ten years later in the excellent Delos highlights disc.) The only relative disappointment comes from the under-casting of Pauline - Katherine Ciesinski is very ordinary compared with Borodina - and also of the smaller roles, but this does not seriously compromise the set as a whole.
It is now available at bargain price and makes a superb introduction to this brooding, neglected masterpiece which has always been overshadowed by the not dissimilar "Onegin" (another dark Pushkin tale). Because it is cheap, there is, as is now standard these days, no libretto and to non-Russian speakers that is essential, unless, like me, you already have a set with one. I have not heard the attractive-looking Tchakarov set (with the incomparable Yuri Mazurok as Yeletsky) which can be harder to obtain, and like the Philips set, is certainly more expensive. Purists might prefer to return to the best of the earlier mono releases in Melik-Pashayev's classic 1952 recording, especially as it features the wonderful Georg Nelepp as the best Hermann ever, but this one has the advantages of sound and cost and does no disservice to Tchaikovsky whatsoever.
P.S. Having now acquired the Tchakarov set, I admit to some slight disappointment. Mazurok is a little past his best, although still impressive, and the rest of the cast rather ordinary except for Toczyska's lovely Pauline. The conducting, however, is excellent. See my review and make your choice."