Tuesday 8 July 2014

Vladimir Ashkenazy leads the Moscow Conservatory Students Choir and Symphony Orchestra and the Moscow Conservatory Opera Soloists in an extremely fine performance of Act I of Rachmaninov’s unfinished opera Monna Vanna

Sergei Rachmaninov’s (1873-1943) three completed operas have not held a place in the repertoire. Aleko (Алеко) was written in 1892 as a graduation work at the Moscow Conservatory winning the highest prizes from the conservatory judges that year. It was first performed at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow on 27th April 1893.

The Miserly Knight (Скупой рыцарь) (1903-05) and Francesca da Rimini (Франческа да Римини) (1900-05) were both performed at the Bolshoi Theatre on 11thJanuary 1906.

There were other projected operas, Esmeralda (изумруд) (1888) (fragments in piano score), Undina (Ундина) (1893) (no extant music), Salammbô (Саламбо), King Lear (Король Лир) (projected 1914) (no extant music) and Monna Vanna (Монна Ванна) (1908) (Act I in piano score and sketches for Act II dated 15th August 1907).

The libretto for Monna Vanna was made by a friend of the composer, Mikhael Slonov (1868-1930) based on a play by Maurice Maeterlinck. It may well have been the fact that Maeterlinck had already granted the operatic rights to the French composer, Henry Février that brought about Rachmaninov abandoning the opera.

At the request of Rachmaninov’s cousin, Sophie Satin, Igor Buketoff prepared a performing orchestrated edition of Act I, which he conducted in its world premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra on 11 August 1984 at Saratoga, New York.

More recently a new orchestration has been made by Gennady Belov (b.1939) and which is performed on a new recording from Ondine www.ondine.net .

ODE 1249-2
The Moscow Conservatory Students Choir and Symphony Orchestra www.mosconsv.ru/ru/groups.aspx?id=21315 www.mosconsv.ru/ru/groups.aspx?id=21311 are conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy www.vladimirashkenazy.com  with the Moscow Conservatory Opera Soloists: Evgeniya Dushina (soprano), Vladimir Avtomonov (baritone), Dmitry Ivanchey (tenor), Edward Arutyunyan (tenor) and Mikhail Golovushkin (bass).

Also on this disc are seven of Rachmaninov’s songs composed between 1900 and 1916 performed by Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski www.allegroartist.com/inhalt/artistroster/sopranos/soile_isokoski/index.html  with Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano).

Act I of Monna Vanna is set in the sieged city of Pisa and is divided into three scenes. Guido, the military commander in Pisa, learns from his father that the enemy will cease conflict if Monna Vanna, wife of Guido, goes to the enemy's camp, but dressed only in a mantle. Monna Vanna agrees to this demand.

There is a swaggering orchestral opening Introduction that sets the mood for the first scene with occasional flashes of Rachmaninov’s mature style. Scene I has Guido and his lieutenants, Borso and Torello discussing the siege. Vladimir Avtomonov, as Guido Colonna, is rich and firm as he sings ‘The end of the Republic of Pisa is Here!’ Edward Arutyunyan as Borso, also has a powerful voice as does Mikhail Golovushkin (Torello), if occasionally a little less steady. The soloists take the main emotional, dramatic weight though there is a very effective orchestral part.

Scene II Guido’s father, Marco, has been acting as a go between and brings news that the enemy general, Prinzivalle, will feed the starving citizens of Pisa and stop the conflict if Monna Vanna goers to his tent at night dressed only in a mantle. He says that she has agreed to do so. Dmitry Ivanchey as Marco has a lovely, appealing voice especially when he sings, ‘But I met someone I did not expect…’ Ivanchey and Avtomonov are most effective in their impassioned dialogue in this scene.

Scene III brings a confrontation between Vanna and her husband Guido who urges her not to go. He then relents but instructs her to kill Prinzivalle but she refuses. They argue and he tells her to go, Act 1 concluding with her turning and slowly departing. The opening of Scene III has the chorus intone ‘Monna, Monna Vanna as with a superb, rippling, sensuous orchestral accompaniment, slowly building in passion as Evgeniya Dushina as Monna Vanna enters. Guido sings, ‘Oh, Monna Vanna! Do not repeat their words! Let me look at your face and into your eyes.’ There is some lovely writing in this scene, full of passion and sensuousness, finely sung. Dushina has a lovely voice, not over strong but characterful, She rises more powerfully in the short ‘…Oh, my Guido! Look! Do not lower your eyes! Is this only a threat?’’

Avtomonov sings extremely well, full of strength and emotion, in ‘He is not an old man! He is young and handsome…He is younger than me…’ Avtomonov has a fine career ahead of him, on the evidence of this performance. Act 1 falls to a tantalising conclusion as Guido sings ‘We will see…Oh, who could tell, That my father knew better than I did?’ Vanna turns and leaves.

There are many strengths to this performance with the Moscow Conservatory Opera Soloists and the Moscow Conservatory Students Choir and Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy delivering extremely fine results. Whilst Rachmaninov’s inspiration flags at times, there are some memorable moments, not the least of which is the opening of Scene III. They receive an excellent live recording from the Grand Hall of the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, Russia.

Vladimir Ashkenazy moves to the piano to join soprano Soile Isokoski for seven of Rachmaninov’s songs recorded in JärvenpääHall, Finland. Soile Isokoski brings a fine voice to these songs particularly in Before my window (У моего окна), Op.26/10 with Ashkenazy providing some especially beautiful, idiomatic playing. She brings a more robust voice than is often heard but never without a Russian character.

In the lovely Sad night (грустно ночь), Op.26/12 Isokoski maintains a lovely control of her powerful voice following every nuance. The lilacs (Сирень), Op.21/5 brings some lovely timbres from this soprano in a beautifully conceived performance, Ashkenazy providing such a refined accompaniment. The playful The Rat Catcher (Крысолов), Op.38/4 is playful, showing Isokoski’s control and flexibility. I particularly like the way she handles the rhythm of lyrics.

Vocalise (Вокализ), Op.34/14 has more passion and power than one is used to, but what lovely textures and feeling Isokoski brings. In the repeat she maintains much control and restraint. There is so much character in her singing whilst Ashkenazy has this music in his blood. How nice this place is (Здесь хорошо), Op.21/7 is another fine song with this soprano drawing many fine textures in music that recalls so much of Rachmaninov’s music of this period.

There is a wonderfully atmospheric piano opening from Ashkenazy in Dream (Сон), Op.38/5. Isokoski gives, perhaps, her finest performance in this song, so finely judged, restrained and full of lovely Rachmaninovian sounds.

Lovers of Rachmaninov and, indeed, Russian repertoire will want this disc not only for the opportunity to hear what might have turned out to be Rachmaninov’s finest opera but also for the songs to which Vladimir Ashkenazy’s superb accompaniment and Soile Isokoski’s powerful voice add so much. Just listen to the two final songs on this disc.

There are informative booklet notes from Malcolm MacDonald as well as full texts and English translations. 

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