, September 2006
A glance at the headings above confirms that all these Rachmaninov operas date from early in his career. All three were completed before the composer reached his mid-thirties. Although they lack the sweeping heart-tugging melodies of the piano concertos and symphonies, there is an appealing lyricism and no lack of power and drama in the music which is colourfully harmonised and orchestrated. Naxos is to be congratulated on producing this valuable concept. The recorded sound is very good and the artists on the whole distinguish themselves.
Aleko, with a libretto by Pushkin, was a set graduation exercise for Arensky’s composition pupils at the Moscow Conservatory in 1892. Rachmaninov’s setting, written in white heat over fifteen days, won him a gold medal, publication and performance, in 1893, at the Bolshoi Theatre.
There is considerable orchestral music included in these excerpts and Nayden Todorov coaxes wonderfully expressive playing from his Sofia orchestra. Listen, for instance to, ‘Women’s Dance’ its woodwinds winding sinuously below pizzicato strings. In contrast, lower strings proclaim the wild ‘Men’s Dance’ assertively and proudly, the music reaching a barbaric climax. The ‘Introduction’ has plaintive material for woodwinds soon to be crushed by sinister malevolent lower string chords rising to a dark crescendo before a brief redemptive release.
Oaken-voiced bass Peter Naydenov is splendidly dignified in his woe as he sings about how his wife had run off with another man. Bass-baritone Alexander Tekeliev, in the title role, is no less impressive. He is ardent and poignant, in his recollections of happier days in his love for Zemfira, the mother of his child who now yearns for another young gypsy, then showing heated anger at the thought of his betrayal. The young gypsy, Boiko Zvetanov, a light youthful-sounding tenor is fervent enough but a tad shaky in his upper register during his ‘Romance’. He is joined by the pleasingly-voiced lyric soprano Mariana Zvetkova in their tense duet before Aleko bursts in thirsting for their blood. He stabs first the boy then Zemfira as she mourns her young lover’s death. A remorseful Aleko is ejected from the gypsy community but an opportunity is missed by Tekeliev here to colour his voice that much more convincingly.
Rachmaninov’s The Miserly Knight has enjoyed something of a revival of late in a rather dubiously conceived Glyndebourne production that partners it with Puccini’s one act opera Gianni Schicchi. This recording features the closing scene of The Miserly Knight which is darkly powerful and is highlighted by the commanding performance of bass Plamen Beykov as the grasping, miserly Baron who refuses to support his son, a young knight who yearns for life at court. In front of the Duke, to whom the young knight had appealed, the Baron even accuses his son of wanting to murder him. Father and son clash, the Baron throws down his gauntlet; a duel between father and son is imminent. The Duke is outraged, banishes Albert and turns on the Baron. At the climax of this powerful scene the Baron - his succeeding anger, shaken outrage, and pain and remorse all so palpable in Beykov’s voice - collapses and dies calling for the keys of his treasure hoard. The orchestra in its final gloomy peroration makes no bones about the evil of putting riches before humanity.
In 1900 Rachmaninov contemplated the story of Francesca da Rimini, and, specifically, that part that had attracted Tchaikovsky. The excerpt on this recording comes from Scene II of Rachmaninov’s one-act opera. The swirling music of the Introduction suggests the passionate but turbulent love of Francesca and Paolo and it leads into the action when the curtain rises. Paolo is reading, animatedly, to Francesca, the story of the illicit love of Lancelot and Guinevere. Both are carried away with its passion. After initial repulses Francesca gives way to Paolo’s ardour and they embrace passionately but Francesca’s husband, Lanceotto discovers them and slays them. Mariana Zvetanov is not only a sweetly-voiced soprano but big in voice too, her passion thrusting forward strongly and gloriously meeting tenor, Boiko Zvetanov’s ardent soaring tones, desperate to break Francesca’s resolve. The orchestral music suggesting the gathering storm is dark and for Lanceotto’s anger terrifying. The chorus, of the damned in Hell, piles terror on terror. The music of this Epilogue just about keeps to the right side of bathos, as the spirits of Paolo and Francesca rue their fate.
Sung texts are available as PDF files online from Naxos.
Another Naxos opera triumph. An intelligent and valuable concept. All performed with passion and commitment.