The National Symphony Orchestra's performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's opera "Zolotoy Pyetushok" ("The Golden Cockerel") came just a few days too late to be heard by Mikhail Gorbachev -- a pity because this crazy, mixed-up fairy tale and political satire, dating from 1907, has some themes that are timely in 1990: military defense systems (including a golden rooster for surveillance and early warning), political promises and the breaking thereof, and the disintegration of an empire through foolish mismanagement. Czarist censors managed to suppress it for two years before its first performance. Like Stalin after them, they knew that opera can be dangerous.
Pick up a recording of Russian opera and chances are you hold in your hands a memento of people struggling against a cruel fate or a ruthless enemy -- not just the characters in the opera, but often the singers, the conductor and even the composer. President Gorbachev and his policies of glasnost and perestroika have made as much difference in the musical life of the Soviet Union as in its politics or economy. But reminders of the bad old days can be heard in recent recordings and old ones making their way to compact discs. One of the most dramatic is a reissue of the first operatic recording made by Galina Vishnevskaya: Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" (Legato LCD-163-2, two CDs). It was recorded in 1956 by the Soviet publishing monopoly MK (Mezhdunarodnaya Kniga or International Book), with a cast, orchestra and chorus from the Bolshoi Opera.
Besides Vishnevskaya, whose youthful voice sounds wonderfully appropriate for the teenage heroine Tatiana, the competent but not breathtaking cast is interesting primarily for the work of tenor Sergei Lemeshev as the doomed poet Lensky. In "Galina," her autobiography, Vishnevskaya discusses this recording at some length and calls Lemeshev "unsurpassed" in this role. In the recording, his interpretation does have great emotional power, but he was 54 at the time and his voice shows serious signs of wear. He had waited too long to record his greatest role -- not voluntarily but because for 20 years, from 1936 to 1956, the only recording company in the Soviet Union did not bother to record "Eugene Onegin," one of the three or four greatest operas in the language. With the ruthless logic of Marxist bureaucracy, the directors of MK thought that the world did not need more than one recording of any piece of music.
"Can one imagine that a recording of 'Aida' in America by a Renata Tebaldi would have prevented a Maria Callas from ever recording it?" Vishnevskaya asks in her book. Actually, things loosened up later; Vishnevskaya re-recorded the role of Tatiana for the soundtrack of a Russian film and again for a new Bolshoi recording with her husband, Mstislav Rostropovich, conducting, Vladimir Atlantov as Lensky and Yuri Mazurov in the title role. This recording, formerly available in this country from EMI, was withdrawn by MK sometime after Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich became "non-persons."
An MK recording from the later 1970s has now reached the United States on CD on the Melodiya label (MCD 115 A&B, two CDs with libretto). This was undoubtedly made as a replacement for the Vishnevskaya-Rostropovich recording after their names became unmentionable in the Soviet Union. The casting of this production looks suspiciously like a reward for political reliability. Atlantov and Mazurov repeat the roles they had on the deleted recording, and they are joined by Tamara Milashkina as Tatiana and Yevgeny Nesterenko as Prince Gremin. All four of these singers, as Vishnevskaya reports in "Galina," had gone to the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1973 to denounce her and Rostropovich for their aid to Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
One is tempted to denounce this recording on political grounds, but that would be a kind of Western neo-Stalinism. It is a capable "Onegin" and its libretto is a model of how Russian librettos should be printed for English audiences -- in groups of three lines, with the Russian text in our alphabet on the first line, an English translation on the second and the Russian text in the Cyrillic alphabet on the third. The Legato recording has a little booklet with several good pictures of the young Vishnevskaya but no libretto. The singing on the Melodiya recording is idiomatic -- which, with Russian singers, includes a high level of vibrato -- but the singers are less impressive than those in the Deutsche Grammophon recording conducted by James Levine. One hears clearly why Milashkina (though a fair soprano) for years took second billing to Vishnevskaya at the Bolshoi. Atlantov's voice is younger than Lemeshev's, but it still shows strain and he is nowhere near as good an actor.
In 1979, after they had been expelled from the Soviet Union and deprived of their citizenship, Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya, in London, collaborated on a recording of Dmitri Shostakovich's opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" that many critics (including me) consider the finest recording of a Russian opera ever made. It has now been remastered on compact discs (EMI CDS 7 49955 2, two CDs with libretto) and in its new format the transparent, vividly colored recording gives it even more impact. The work is first-class, not only from Vishnevskaya but from Nicolai Gedda, Dimiter Petkov and an international cast that includes Robert Tear and Aage Haugland. With Rostropovich on the podium, the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Ambrosian Opera Chorus give solidly idiomatic performances.
This is, of course, the opera that got Shostakovich into trouble in 1936 when Stalin went to the opera and his delicate sensibilities were upset by the violence not only of its plot (involving adultery, suicide and three murders) but also of its harmonies and orchestration. For two years, the opera had been a sensational success with critics and the public alike, but Stalin's attack, launched with an editorial in Pravda, destroyed it. The opera was taken out of the repertoire and Shostakovich withdrew his Fourth Symphony, fearful of a renewed attack. He never wrote another opera, depriving Russian opera of what promised to be the greatest talent in its history, and the first performance of the Fourth Symphony was delayed for a quarter-century. It is still not heard as often as it deserves, though the Los Angeles Philharmonic gave an excellent performance on its recent visit to the Kennedy Center. There are several good recordings; my favorite, currently, is that of Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Royal Philharmonic (London 425693-2 LH), but those by Jarvi (Chandos) and Gennady Rozhdestvensky (Melodiya) are also good.
Since 1956, MK has not only decided that the world can sometimes use more than one recording of a piece of music: Western companies have been permitted to record Soviet musicians in the Soviet Union and the number and technical quality of MK recordings circulating in the West on the Melodiya label has improved enormously. Through the years, Western distribution rights to MK recordings have been licensed to a variety of companies ranging from the long-defunct Westminster label, which flourished in the early 1950s, to (most recently) Koch Import Service and MCA Classics.
A few excellent recent items are briefly noted below:
Shostakovich's Symphonies No. 2 ("October") and 12 ("1917"); Ministry of Culture Orchestra, Gennady Rozhdestvensky (Melodiya MCD 200). Both works celebrate the Russian Revolution with roof-raising vigor. No. 2 (in one movement with a chorus) is particularly interesting as a sample of the young Shostakovich's musical radicalism. Rozhdestvensky is one of this composer's finest interpreters, in this music and also in the stark, disillusioned Symphony No. 14 (really a cycle of songs for soprano, bass, string orchestra and percussion). His recording of No. 14 (Melodiya MCD 182) is filled out with powerful selections from his incidental music for "King Lear." An aspect of Shostakovich's art that is still not fully appreciated in the West is his chamber music. A good selection -- his Piano Quintet, Op. 57, plus his 7th and 14th String Quartets -- can be heard on MCA/Melodiya MLD-32106.
The Music of the First October Years (Melodiya MCD 170). The Russian avant-garde of the 1920s was as lively and imaginative as that in Europe, but it faded away in the name of "socialist realism" as the reactionary grip of Stalinism was tightened over Soviet society. This fine sampler makes an interesting balance with "Highlights from 'Alternatives' " (MCA/Melodiya AED-68000), highlights recorded live at a series of concerts given in 1988 by the reemerging Soviet avant-garde, which sounds remarkably like our own.
A particularly curious collection to be issued under the supposedly atheist government's official sponsorship is "A Collection of Sacred Russian Choral Music" (MCA/Melodiya AED-68004), beautifully performed and recorded and attesting to the vitality of Russia's age-old religious tradition. Likely to find a wider audience than any of the rather specialized items listed above is a performance of Rachmaninoff's bright, vigorous Symphonic Dances and his brilliant setting of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Bells" (in a Russian translation) for soprano, tenor, chorus and orchestra (Melodiya OCD 116).