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by John Bell Young

Though 1997 still holds the record as a banner year for the release of Slavic song on disc – largely due to BMG’s multiple releases of Russian operas from Melodiya’s historic archives – 1998 didn’t lag far behind. On the way (but regrettably, after year end press deadlines) is a new Boris with Gergiev and the Kirov that promises to surpass his previous outing only a few years ago. Indeed, the past year has seen the emergence of even more esoteric repertoire and rare performances. Three of these proved exemplary, if not always for musical reasons.

Chandos’s decision to excavate a dinosaur of the Soviet era, Shostakovich’s cold-war comic operetta Moskva, Cheremushki, is perhaps less remarkable for the fine, if not particularly imaginative reading of Genady Rozhdestvensky and the Residentie Orchestra the Hague, than it is for the audacity of having released it in the first place. A blatantly sarcastic, Soviet era farce that makes minced meat out of a bourgeois genre once intended, at least in the west, as little more than light entertainment, it becomes something more in Shostakovich’s hands: a playful indictment of a status quo perpetuated by a corrupt social and political agenda that had already begun to fall apart. Cheremushki is all the more remarkable, not so much for its musical content (which deliberately celebrates the banal and the mundane with melodies and rhythms to match) but for what it says about the composer’s extra-musical philosophy. At last, here is a work of Shostakovich whose political content is plain and not in the least ambiguous, nor even particularly open for discussion; though ironic and humorous, its refusal to hide behind an elaborate and ambiguous musical symbolism that is subject to multiple interpretations will likely muzzle the ongoing dispute over the issue among Shostakovich scholars. Given the increasingly turbulent post-Glasnost confusion that once again threatens to unravel everyday Russian life, a work like Cheremushki probably seems dated to Russian ears. But it’s precisely for that reason that it throws recent history into a kind of chilling perspective: now that the work is freer than ever to make its point about mediocrity and incompetence, even in the west, it is no longer as anachronistic as its re-emergence is eerily symptomatic of the very thing it hoped to satirize. Thus, Chandos’s bold resolve to produce it (which features baritone Andrei Baturkin, the gifted soprano Elena Prokina, tenor Herman Apaikin and the versatile mezzo Irina Gelakhova in multiple roles) is all the more admirable, in that sales are probably unlikely to justify the production’s expense or fatten corporate profits, nor even bolster careers. On the contrary, this project was clearly a labor of love, one that in some ways transcended the performance itself and was designed to restore to the repertoire an obscure and valuable, if controversial gem. (Chandos 9591; Koch)

Going south a bit into more Bohemian territory, Leos Janacek’s thoroughly engaging and always intense Kat’a Kabanova is no less representative of the Slavic ethos than any great Russian opera, including Boris. Behind its twisted tale of internecine conflicts and tortured conscience is some of the most complex, elaborate and preternaturally rich music ever written. Though Kat’a long ago entered the mainstream operatic repertoire, surfacing regularly at most major international houses (save a few in Italy that never embraced it), it never enjoyed the instant popular appeal of the Italian, or even the German staples. Though its heroine does herself in no less violently at the end than Brünnhilde in Gotterdammerung or Norma (though for the reticent Kat’a, of course, the somehow less viscerally painful medium of water is the preferred method of self destruction, lending her a superficial kinship with the far more virulent and politically savvy Tosca), the opera distinguishes itself by betraying the essential naiveté of its principal characters, recalling Dostoyevsky’s obiter dictum that "good intentions pave the road to hell".

Sir Charles Mackerras’s thoughtful, pristinely wrought reading with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (Supraphon 3291; Qualiton) is at once sweeping and detailed, surpassing his earlier effort some 20 years earlier with Elisabeth Soderstrom in the title role. On this occasion the estimable, autumnal-voiced Gabriela Benackova, who inhabits the character with uncanny empathy, joins him. From the opening bars Sir Charles shrouds orchestral textures in a kind of subfusc understatement, rendering its disturbing psychological subtext that much more compelling. Nuance is the middle name of this astonishingly subtle performance, which brings Kat’a Kabanova very much into the 21st century as it holds up a mirror to contemporary anxieties.

This triumvirate of the year’s leading contenders led me to a conundrum for the third choice. Galina Vishnevskaya’s historic outing in the 1960s with Rostropovich and Oistrakh in works of Prokofieff, Moussorgsky and Shostakovich, just recently harvested from the Melodiya archive, was certainly a leading contender. (BMG Melodiya 53237) A recording of this caliber and incomparable artistic value has little competition anyway in the larger scheme of things. Add to that the legendary status of the performers and there’s little doubt that its shelf life will self-perpetuate no matter how glowing (or even detrimental) the critical accolades it receives and most certainly deserves.

In light of this, my third choice is Nina Rautio’s stentorian, earnest, sometimes overwhelming and not always subtle account of some two dozen songs of Rachmaninoff . (Conifer Classics 51276; BMG). Accompanied with soignee assurance by Semion Skigin, Ms. Rautio offers brighter than usual readings of these mahogany works, as if by doing so something of their immanent dialectics, pitting hope against despair, will be revealed. Still, in song after song, and in spite of some overly shrill moments, Ms. Rautio demonstrates she can soar with the best of them, throwing herself into a score with a fierce determination and dramatic abandon that sings the Slavic soul. And that passion, that concern, that prescient and even visionary spiritual largesse are precisely what Russia – and perhaps the rest of us – could use more of right now.

Copyright © 3 February 1999 John Bell Young

European readers please note - John Bell Young's references refer to the American distributors of these recordings.