Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich

Galina Vishnevskaya and Mstislav Rostropovich: Russian Live Recordings from the Sixties
Mussorgsky: Songs and Dances of Death (orch. Shostakovich); *Shostakovich: Seven Romances to Poems by Alexander Blok; ^Satires (Pictures of the Past); ^Prokofieff: Five Poems by Anna Akhmatova
Galina Vishnevskaya, soprano; Gorki State Philharmonic Orchestra/Mstislav Rostropovich; *David Oistrakh, Mstislav Rostropovich, Moisei Vainberg; ^Mstislav Rostropovich, piano
BMG Melodiya 74321 53247 2 | Stereo ADD

I wasn’t able to find this recording in time to post along with my previous post of recordings of Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. Believe me, I tore up my house looking for them. But just when I wasn’t looking for it, there it was in front of my nose. Oh, well!

The 1990’s were a good time to be a Shostakovich fan. Le Chant du Monde, Russian Revelation, Russian Disc, and Melodiya (under the auspices of BMG) were showering us with all sorts of gems. I still remember with teary-eyed nostalgia the aisles at the Tower Classical store in Hollywood swelling with these discs. Sadly this surfeit of Russian treasures proved to be short lived and by 2000 had all become hard to find collector’s items. Some of these recordings have been reissued by other labels since, but never again have we had labels devoted entirely to mining the Soviet radio archives. Our loss.

In my earlier post, I had lamented that EMI’s recording of the Songs and Dances of Death found the great Russian diva, Galina Vishnevskaya, a bit past her prime. No such problem here. This recording from 1962 contains a broadcast of the world premiere of Shostakovich’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s song cycle. Vishnevskaya’s voice gleams in top form here. It is supple and rich; her Slavic vibrato under better control. She also conveys even more dramatic fire and nuance here than on her EMI studio effort. Her ability to switch back and forth on a turn of the dime from the mother’s terrified query to death’s icy, calm response in the Lullaby is breathtaking. How she manages to swing from one emotional extreme to another and sound totally convincing is beyond me. She sounds ardent as the seducer in the Serenade and her cry of triumph at the end is truly chilling. What a fearsome specter she is in the Trepak. Vishnevskaya finds just the right tone of cloying sweetness to the siren song that Death sings to the drunken peasant. Her most fearsome singing comes in The Field Marshal. Vishnevskaya’s Death crows with delight as she surveys the mounds of corpses left on the battlefield. I’m pinned to my seat when she launches into the closing roll call of death with the line Konchana bitva! Ya vsekh pomirila! (Cease your fighting! Victory is mine!). One would think this work to be the sole domain of men like Chaliapin or Christoff, but Vishnevskaya’s singing is here is every bit the equal in terms of vocal quality, and may even surpass them in dramatic insight. Rostropovich’s Gorki Philharmonic play with more fire than with accuracy. Numerous gaffes and lapses are enough to show that this orchestra was hardly even a second or third tier ensemble. But the sense of occasion and Vishnevskaya’s powerful interpretation makes this a recording to cherish. It is interesting to note that this concert also included Shostakovich’s debut and farewell in the role of conductor. The opening part of the program on this concert included the Festival Overture and the Cello Concerto No.1 with Rostropovich. Shostakovich had received some instruction in the art from Fritz Stiedry and Vaclav Talich in his youth, but was never able to overcome his stage fright. For this concert he was coached by Rostropovich and Kondrashin and, judging from the reviews, he did OK. It would be fascinating to hear if that portion of the broadcast had been preserved.

The remainder of this disc comes from a recital in 1967 that included the world premiere of Shostakovich’s Seven Romances to Poems by Alexander Blok. Her all-star backing trio is David Oistrakh, Mstislav Rostropovich, and the composer Moisei Vainberg filling in for an indisposed Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich had written the piano part with his own abilities in mind, but had fallen ill before the concert. Simply put, you will not find a better recording of these elusive, haunting songs. Vishnevskaya sings with great poise and delicateness and her trio is, needless to say, outstanding. Incidentally, during Oistrakh’s duet with Vishnevskaya in We Were Together, he was playing through very violent chest pains that seized him shortly before the song had begun. Not wanting to cause a scene and distress the composer, Oistrakh played through his part without anyone else realizing what was going on. The pain had abated by the end of the song cycle, but he quickly checked himself into a hospital as soon as the concert ended.

Shostakovich’s playful song cycle Satires has been earning some more attention these past few years. Several good recordings have been made; one in an orchestral realization by Shostakovich student Boris Tishchenko. This breezy work seems to recall the playful, carefree Shostakovich of the early 1930’s. Only the central song, Descendants, sounds more in tune with the mournful tone of his works from the 1960’s and 1970’s. Vishnevskaya sings with sparkling wit and charm and Rostropovich’s accompaniment is equally fine. These miniatures pop and fizzle like a freshly uncorked bottle of champagne.

Prokofieff brings us to a close here in the rarefied sound world of his Five Poems of Anna Akhmatova. Their hot house lyricism and harmonies, redolent of Scriabin and Debussy, makes for a nice tonic to the Shostakovich works. Why haven’t more singers recorded Prokofieff's wonderful songs?

Sound is decent in the Mussorgsky and very good in the remainder. Vishnevskaya in her prime was, as they say, something else. Listen to this CD and hear why Shostakovich was so inspired by this voice.



  2. There's no slowing you down, I guess, so I'm just going to go with the flow! Thanks for more and more and more .....

  3. Wonderful! Thank you, Dear Problembaer!