Gergiev: Tchaikovsky - Pique Dame, 1992 (3 CD, FLAC)
Gergiev: Tchaikovsky - Pique Dame, 1992 (3 CD, FLAC)

Orchestra: Kirov Chorus and Orchestra
Conductor: Valery Gergiev
Composer: Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky
Audio CD
SPARS Code: DDD
Number of Discs: 3 CD box set
Format: FLAC (image+cue)
Label: Philips
Size: 597 MB
Recovery: +3%
Scan: no

Herman – Gegam Grigoryan
Count Tomsky – Nikolay Putilin
Prince Yeletsky – Vladimir Chernov
The Countess – Irina Arkhipova
Lisa – Maria Gulegina
Paulina – Olga Borodina
Governess – Ludmila Filatova
Masha – Tatyana Filimonova
Chekalinsky – Vladimir Solodovnikov
Surin – Sergei Aleksashin
Chaplitsky – Evgeny Boitsov
Narumov – Gennady Bezzubenkov
Master of Ceremonies – Nikolay Gassiev

The first choice in this fascinating opera.

At last, I think Tchaikovsky’s Greatest Opera has received a great recording. I admire Maria Guleghina and in her early days around the time of this recording she was suitable for the role of Lisa, though Lady Macbeth and Tosca lurk like shadows behind Guleghina throughout this performance. Lisa was one of Birgit Nilsson’s early successes in Stockholm and Galina Vishnevskaya was famous in the role so there is a precedence for heavier sopranos in the part. Lisa is a very ‘heavy’ tragic’ role, unlike Tatyana in Eugene Onegin who enjoys a comparatively happy, though bittersweet fate. Guleghina has a fundamentally beautiful voice, she doesn’t wobble or scream though her vibrato is a little heavy at times. She is also a vivid vocal actress and her musical savvy is beyond reproach, phrasing well and with a long-breathed legato that is very impressive.

Gegam Grigorian is about as ideal a Hermann as could be found at the time, 1992. He begins a little on the sobbing Italian side of things but settles down after the first Act and becomes a black hole of addictive hysteria that is fascinating to hear. A very distinguished performance from him.

It is a great asset that all the members of this cast are Russian, their diction and pronunciation is wonderfully authentic and when they launch into French, as the Russian court did in those days, it is also idiomatic, with a Russian tinge that is entirely appropriate.

The ‘hit’ of this recording is Vladimir Chernov’s rendition of the great love aria in Act 2, handsomely sung, sexy and ardent, and he makes Russian sound almost French or Italian with his passionate and heartfelt delivery. Olga Borodina is not surprisingly a splendid Polina. Her sad little song in Act 1 is very redolent of the 18th century Russian aristocracy who entertained themselves at home, singing and dancing, a long dead age that is evoked in this deeply nostalgic scene that erupts in typical Russian jubilance with the girls launching into a bumptious peasant song and dance. They are interrupted by the old governess who sings a very characterful little aria about how aristocratic young ladies should behave. One of the things I love about Pique Dame is that Tchaikovsky bothers about interrupting the dramatic flow with little moments like this. Rather like Jane Austen with all her minor characters getting to make their mark on the vast canvas of her stories. The Major-Domo is another case in point. Nikolai Gassiev makes a strong impression with his three or four moments. It is these small cameos that fill in the shades of the society Tchaikovsky is portraying in his wonderfully inventive score. Of course the most outrageous bit of stage business that impresses is the arrival of Empress Catherine the Great at the end of Scene 1 of Act 2. Lucky supernumerary who gets to get all dolled up like that and just enter and stand there with all attention upon her! And she doesn’t have to utter a word.

I know Eugene Onegin is considered his great operatic masterpiece but when I hear a fine recording like this of Pique Dame I have to wonder if perhaps it is even the greater creation. Tchaikovsky has succeeded brilliantly in evoking the 18th century Russian court society with his Haydn-esque music, when called for as in the Intermezzo playlet within the play. This is most noticeable in the music for the old Countess who embodies the court of Louis XV and La Pompadour. The great Irina Arkhipová is in fine voice here. This part is often cast with antiquated sopranos and mezzo-sopranos who can barely croak anymore, but Arkhipová does not wobble, hoot or bark. It is possible that this character may have only been in her mid-60s, which was a fairly ripe old age in those days, so she would not necessarily be on her last legs, but all things being relative it is arguable that the old crone approach is not wrong. However, it is good to hear a steady and powerful voice used to such subtle effect in the haunting bedroom scene prior to her death.

I am not a great big fan of Valery Gergiev. I remember seeing him in his first American appearance at the San Francisco opera way back in 1991 conducting Prokofiev’s long and sprawling masterpiece War and Peace. I can’t remember a single cast member but I remember his galvanizing and thrilling conducting. Then he made his famous recording of Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony in Vienna and his international career sky-rocketed and he became a fixture at the Metropolitan Opera. His output after that has been spotty. Sometimes he’s magnificent, sometimes he’s sloppy and bombastic. You never know with him. This recording of Pique Dame shows him in his early days (1992) before his ego became too bloated for comfort. The way he invokes the Mozartian aspects of this score is deeply impressive, melding those elements so naturally with the mid 19th century Russian romanticism of Tchaikovsky’s characteristic mode of composition.

The forces of the Kirov Opera are splendid. I would say this is without question the best recording of this wonderful opera.

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