About this Recording
8.111071-73 - BORODIN: Prince Igor (Ivanov, Smolenskaya, Melik-Pashayev) (1951)
English 

Alexander Borodin (1834-1887)
Prince Igor

Alexander Borodin, the composer of Prince Igor, one of the greatest of all Russian operas, once said that for him ‘music was a pastime, a relaxation from more serious occupations’. These ‘serious occupations’ were the disciplines of science and medicine, with which he achieved international fame. Born illegitimately to an aristocratic father in St Petersburg in 1833, by the start of adolescence he could play the piano, flute and cello and speak several languages. Although highly adept at music, his passion was for experimental chemistry. In 1850 he entered the Medico-Surgical Academy at St Petersburg. On graduation he spent a year as a house surgeon in a military hospital, followed by three years of further study in western Europe. Here he met the brilliant young pianist Ekaterina Protopova, whom he married in 1863, after succeeding to the professorship at the Academy in 1862. He spent the rest of his life lecturing and supervising student work, not only in St Petersburg, but throughout Europe.

Borodin was self-taught in composition, having started as early as when he was nine, until he began to take lessons from Balakirev in 1862. Through Balakirev he met the composers Cui, Mussorgsky and Rimsky- Korsakov, and together they became known as ‘The Five’ or ‘The Mighty Handful’. As a group they were opposed to academic approaches to music; by contrast they viewed themselves as Russian patriots, standing for spontaneity and ‘truth in music’. With his successful medical career, composition was little more than a hobby for Borodin. His opera Prince Igor, despite occupying him for eighteen years, remained unfinished at his death in 1887. It was completed and orchestrated by Glazunov (who drafted the Overture based on recollections of hearing Borodin play it on the piano) and Rimsky-Korsakov, and was first performed in St Petersburg on 4th November 1890.

Set in the twelfth century, Prince Igor is a vast nationalist epic, and describes the clash of cultures between the Russians, symbolised by Prince Igor, and the Tartar Polovtski tribe, led by Khan Konchak. The plot is relatively straight-forward. Following the Overture, in the Prologue Prince Igor sets off to wage war against the Polovtski. In Act One his wife, Yaroslavna, forces his brother and rival, Prince Galitsky, to curb his supporters. Word comes that Igor and his son Vladimir have been defeated and captured. Act Two is set in the Polovtsian camp. Vladmir has fallen in love with Konchak’s daughter, Konchakovna. Konchak offers to grant Igor his freedom if he ceases hostilities. Igor refuses. In the Third Act (omitted in this recording as was the custom of the time) Igor escapes, but without his son. Konchak refuses to pursue Igor. He retains Vladimir as a hostage and marries him to Konchakovna. Act Four brings the opera to a close: Igor returns safely to Russia, is greeted with rejoicing, and vows to raise fresh troops with which to meet the Polovtski threat.

This historic recording was made in Moscow during 1951 and features the legendary Bolshoy Opera, the pre-eminent opera company of the Soviet era, at its peak. Leading the performance is the conductor Alexander Melik-Pashayev. He joined the Bolshoy in 1931, after studying with Nikolai Tcherepnin and Alexander Gauk and leading the Tbilisi Opera. He replaced Nikolai Golovanov as the company’s chief conductor in 1953, and did much to extend its repertoire with both new works and operas from the western canon. As with his predecessors Samosud and Golovanov, his reign came to an unexpected end in 1962, when he was summarily replaced by Evgeny Svetlanov. He died two years later.

The leading rôles are taken by the cream of the Bolshoy’s singers at this time. Yaroslavna, Prince Igor’s wife, is sung by the soprano Evgeniya Smolenskaya (1919-1989). After making her début in 1945 at Stalingrad she joined the Bolshoy in 1947, singing many dramatic soprano rôles with distinction until her retirement in 1972. The other major female rôle, Konchakovna, is taken by Vera Borisenko, born in 1918. After gaining initial experience in the Red Army Entertainment Corps and the Kiev Opera she joined the Bolshoy in 1946 and stayed there for the rest of her career. She took first prize in the 1947 Prague International Singing Competition, and this part was her first major success in Moscow. The tenor Sergey Lemeshev (1902-1977), who sings Vladimir, Igor’s son, was one of the biggest Soviet music stars of the period. He studied initially at the St Petersburg Military Academy and later at the Moscow Conservatory, also studying acting with Stanislavsky. During the 1920s he sang in the provinces before joining the Bolshoy in 1931, where he remained until 1961 as one of the house’s triumvirate of great tenors, the others being Nelepp and Koslovzky. An enormously popular figure, he recorded extensively and appeared in several films.

The title rôle of Prince Igor is taken by the baritone, Andrey Ivanov (1900-1970). Following study at the Kiev Conservatory, he served as a member of the Kiev Opera from 1934 to 1950, when he became a member of the Bolshoy company, retiring in 1956. (He is not to be confused with Alexey Ivanov, 1904-1982, another Bolshoy baritone of note with a similar repertoire.) The two basses in this recording are jusitifiably legendary. Alexander Pirogov (1899-1964), who takes the part of Igor’s rival Prince Galitsky, studied in Moscow and joined the Bolshoy in 1924, where he was both preceded and succeeded by other brothers. A singer of great character he recorded the title rôle in Boris Godunov with Golovanov conducting in 1948 and participated in the 1953 Bolshoy première and recording of Shaporin’s The Decembrists, also conducted by Melik-Pashayev. Igor’s adversary Khan Konchak is sung by Mark Reizen (1895-1992). A soldier in the First World War, he made his operatic début in 1921, before joining the Opera in Leningrad. He visited the West in 1930 when he recorded for EMI in London. He was a member of the Bolshoy company from 1930 until his retirement in 1955, after which he continued to appear as a guest, singing on stage there on his ninetieth birthday, and still exhibiting his formidable stage presence.

David Patmore


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