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Bolshoi Russian opera highlights CD
25 Aug 2006

Bolshoi Russian opera highlights

Pentatone Classics joins some smaller recording companies staking out niche markets as the biggest labels continue their enforced retreat from the classical marketplace.

The Bolshoi Experience — Highlights from Russian Operas

Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre Moscow, conducted by Alexander Vedernikov

Pentatone PTC 5186 089 [SACD]

$18.99  Click to buy

Many of Pentatone's releases boast Hybrid Multichannel Super Audio sound, as heard on a new recording of selections covering Russian opera from Glinka to Rachmaninoff, performed by the Bolshoi Theater forces.

Russia remains one place where a great native tradition seems to be caught in time, at least in terms of certain vocal characteristics and an abiding affection for outdated stagings, as glimpsed in photos in the CD booklet. Labeled 'The Bolshoi Experience," what this CD somewhat unfortunately displays is a company in need of some new vision. No one can dispute the pride in the great heritage sampled on this disc, but the orchestra gives perfunctory performances, most of the soloists claim for themselves that appellation, "provincial," and the overall effect disappoints.

After a chorus from Glinka's A Life for the Czar, bass Vladimir Matorin rumbles his way through an aria for Ivan. Then two selections from Dargomizhsky's Rusalka make up the "rare" repertory on the disc, with the focus on Mikhail Gubsky's Prince. Gubsky sounds ready to break into tears at any moment, less from any dramatic impetus than a tendency to intonation droops. The music does have a gentle melodicism that makes further exploration of the opera an appealing prospect.

Tenor Vsevolod Grivnov sounds steadier than Gubsky, in a romance from Tchaikovsky's Iolanthe. This gives way to Lisa's act three aria, suing with distressing acidity by Elena Zelenskaya. The Tchaikovsky section concludes with an aria from Mazeppa for the title character; Yuri Nechaev has a pleasant baritone, if perhaps not dark enough for the character.

The best of the basses on the disc, Taras Shtonda, gets the aria from Rachmaninoff's Aleko, and proves that this type of voice can offer dramatic insight without untoward gruffness and wobbling.

The disc ends with flair, with four selections from Borodin's Prince Igor, ably sung by baritone Yuri Nechaev and bass Valery Gilmanov. As one might expect, to conclude the Bolshoi chorus tears into the vocal version of the Polovtsian dances.

So this disc, heavy with male voices, may not be the best calling card for the current Bolshoi opera. It does, however, have an appealing selection of music from a range of opera that give a good picture of Russia's great heritage. And the sound is, unsurprisingly, first-class.

Chris Mullins

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