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Recordings of the Year 1977-2017

1977 Janáček Káta Kabanová Elisabeth Söderström sop �Káta Kabanová Petr Dvorsky ten �Boris Nadezda Kniplová contr �Kabanicha Dalibor Jedlička bass �Dikoj Vladimir Krejcík ten �Tichon Zdeněk Svehla ten �Kudrjás Libuše Márová mez �Varvara Jaroslav Souček bar �Kuligin Jitka Pavlová mez �Glasa Gertrud Jahn mez �Feklusa Vienna State Opera Chorus; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Charles Mackerras Decca

Ostrovsky’s The Storm has, by my count, inspired no fewer than seven operas (not to mention an overture by Tchaikovsky); he was passionately interested in music, and himself wrote the libretto for the first of the Storm operas, by Kashperov. English readers can readily see how his sharply observed drama of realism must have stimulated Janá∂ek for Káta Kabanová in the excellent translation by Joshua Cooper in the Penguin Classics volume Four Russian Plays; and there is an admirable account of how The Storm became Káta Kabanová in the long essay by John Tyrrell that accompanies this new set. As Dr Tyrrell points out, ‘Janá∂ek allows Káta to dominate in a way that goes far beyond Ostrovsky’s original. Káta is the only character with flexible, distinctive music which changes and grows with her during the opera’. The great strength of this splendid new recording is that at its centre there is placed an interpretation of extraordinary tenderness and suppleness, and above all sadness. Mr Cooper observes in his introduction that it was the custom in the part of the Volga where The Storm is set for brides, once married, to become ‘virtually bondslaves to their husband’s mother’. Out of the touching picture in Ostrovsky, Janá∂ek has drawn a tragic heroine; and Elisabeth Söderström responds within comparable sensitivity to the subtle

4 GRAMOPHONE RECORDINGS OF THE YEAR

inflexions and the delicate movement of her character forward into disaster. She does not make Káta a grande dame, nor does she underline anything. Janá∂ek develops Káta’s tragedy almost obliquely: sometimes it is a single, warmer extension of a characteristic phrase, or perhaps an ironic contrast with another character, that reveals how her emotions are drawing her, to her grief as much as to her joy. When Káta, longing for Boris, exclaims to herself, ‘I must see him!’, Söderström understands that the poignancy of the moment resides in the contrast between the hesitation and nervousness in the voice and the ‘hidden’ passion that wells up around her in the orchestra. As they do meet in their love scene, her exclamation ‘Zivote muj!’ (‘My life!’) is gently released, whereas Boris’s reply to the same words is more conventionally forceful. Söderström establishes the character’s tenderness, flecked with melancholy, at her first entry, in contrast to the flinty Kabanicha; and by the final scene she has completed the picture of Káta as at once the richest and most human character in the drama, and the sacrificial victim to the storm (the ‘terror’ which is an inflexion of the Russian word for ‘storm’) that has racked them all and brought her to destruction.

The sorrowfulness that rules her character is also the central characteristic of Charles Mackerras’s performance. His long knowledge of the score has flowered into the richest account of it he has yet given, from the melancholy fondling of the love theme and the ominous drum taps of the opening, through to the harshness of the destroying storm. He draws wonderful playing from the Vienna Philharmonic: the music has a precisely guided ebb and flow that the players have come to feel as if instinctively. There is some beautiful woodwind playing, and a particularly fine horn in the last act; but the whole orchestra sounds devoted to the score. Mackerras includes, incidentally, two hitherto almost unknown passages, an Act I interlude that rather attractively extends the music of Scene 1, and what Dr Tyrrell calls ‘a jaunty little march’ for the exit of Kabanicha and Dikoj in Act 2: does it not also have a somewhat sarcastic tinge? In one or two places he departs from the dynamic markings in the Universal Edition vocal score; there is also an occasional change in the words.

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Most of the rest of the cast are Czech; and though to a foreign ear it would be difficult to fault Söderström’s handling of the language, there is an obvious gain in having native singers for a language so intricately bound up with the music. Libu≈e Márová and Zdenek Svehla make a lively pair of secondary lovers, and sing their folk songs charmingly (especially the touching one with its ‘leli, leli’ refrain). Nadezda Kniplová makes a formidable Kabanicha, and one suggesting greater reserves of banked-up passion of her own than is customary. It gives the role a particular irony. Her rounding on Tichon is savage, though her final thanks to those who have dragged Kata’s body from the river sound almost too domineering for Janá∂ek’s icy little phrases. Petr Dvorsky makes an elegant Boris: it is not the most interesting of the roles secondary to Káta herself. Vladimir Krejcik is an interesting Tichon, adding to the weakness that makes him subject to his alarming mother, and to the rather contemptuous Káta, a touching quality that comes out most strongly at his farewell - ‘Don’t see other men’, ‘Are you cross with me?’. There is a good, firm Dikoj from Dalibor Jedlicka.

For all the merits of the well-loved old Krombholc set on Supraphon, there is no doubt that this new version is preferable: indeed, it is an outstanding operatic recording by any standards. The sound is rich yet precise; the placing and balance of the characters are clear (Kabanicha nearly disappears under the orchestral weight at the height of the storm, to which is added a great deal of recorded thunder, but there is a valid expressive point in allowing even her to seem at the mercy of the violence that strikes). Most importantly, there is an understanding between conductor and singer, in the collaboration between Mackerras and Söderström that articulates this beautiful and touching opera with unfailing eloquence. John Warrack

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