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Penguin Guide, January 2009

The bass Maxim Mikhailov was the finest Ivan Susanin of his day and he sang the role some 400 times. Natalia Spiller, who sings his daughter, Antonida, was one of the greatest of the Bolshoi’s heroines. The singing is superb and it is difficult to imagine a vocally or dramatically finer cast or finer conducting. The Epilogue was recorded in 1950 and is conducted by Vasili Nebolsin. (Incidentally, the Sigismund III in this performance is sung by Fyodor Svetlanov, the father of the conductor Evgeni, who became the Bolshoi’s conductor in 1962.) The third CD is completed by some isolated arias sung by Antonina Nezhdanova (1913), Chaliapin (recorded in London in 1923) and Helge Rosvæ (in Berlin, 1940). Readers who can remember what Soviet recordings sounded like in the days of 78s and LP will be amazed at the quality of this set.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, July 2006

The Melik-Pashayev recording of Ivan Susanin or A Life for the Tsar, as it’s rather better known in the West, has been available on at least two labels of late – Preiser and Great Hall MVT. Both were double CD sets but Naxos’s budget price transfer comprises three discs. The second disc is short and the third includes five outstanding examples from the opera derived from recordings made in 1913, 1923, 1940 and 1950. Whether this will entice rather depends on price brackets and respective transfers as the extracts, however distinguished they may be as examples of Glinka on disc, will not be enough to tip any balance.

This is a much admired set and I admit to admiring some of it, indeed much of it, but not all of it. With Melik-Pashayev at the helm – except for the Epilogue, which was recorded three years later under Nebolsin – we are guaranteed an intense and driving exploration of the orchestral strands. He’s a first class conductor, ensuring good balances and even admitting the less than stellar 1947 engineering he invariably produces direction of arresting control. The chorus is an incisive and powerful body; their fugal entries in the Act I introduction are suitably vibrant. The recording naturally fell prey to the kind of brazen one dimensionality that afflicted so many contemporaneous Soviet recordings. It’s a fact of life and not much can be done now to limit its more intransigent brashness.

The soloists were among the pre-eminent few of the time. Mikhailov takes the role of Susanin. I know that many swear by him but though the voice is big and characterful I find it insufficiently supported. His great qualities were of projection of nobility and gravity and that he most certainly does. Technically however he can be fallible. Georgi Nelepp is the spirited Sobinin, vibrant and tense with an intense vibrato. His range is extensive and exciting and he swoops through the registers with few weaknesses, though I happen to find some of his more athletic ascents in the final scene of Act I rather like the recording – brazen and in poor taste. Still he and Mikhailov make a good tonal match – the razory incision of the tenor and the emollient patrician bass. Note too the excellent young women’s chorus and the gutsy orchestral playing in their scenes.

I was surprised to read in the notes that the Vanya of Yelizaveta Antonova was only forty-three at the time of the recording. Her mezzo is edging toward the matronly and there are intrusive breaths and registral breaks; more damaging a slack-ish vibrato, especially in Act III’s duet between her and Susanin. Much preferable is the Antonida of the esteemed Natalia Spiller, whose ardent intensity lights up the Romance in Act III, and she proves a commanding and technically superior exponent. Some of her music has however been excised and it ought to be pointed out that this pruning of the text is really quite extensive. I don’t have a score or timings to hand but at least 35-45 minutes of music were excised, not least to conform to prevailing political orthodoxies. Incidentally the very small role of Sigismund is taken by Fyodor Svetlanov, father of Evgeny. The Epilogue under Nebolsin is rousing, to say the least, though there have certainly been more dignified Coronations on disc.

The appendix contains a well-engineered 1913 Antonina Nezhdanova and the Act III duet between Vanya and Susanin. Here Sokolova and Reizen prove superior to their counterparts in the complete set. Rosvaenge is rather clarion and exaggerated in his excerpt, Zbruyeva interesting to hear in her 1913 double-sided extract but not so impressive technically. Chaliapin is magnetic; the London band accompanying is not.

The notes cover biographical and other matters with concision. As is usual now from this source there is a synopsis, and no libretto. Ward Marston has done the remastering honours though we don’t hear of his source material. It certainly sounds suitably strident and present, with minimal distractions. I don’t have the competition to hand so can’t make comparative listening choices. Three discs at Naxos’s price, of course, is still three budget priced discs so many will relish the opportunity to hear this post-War set and the ancillary material as well.

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