years, Western imports from Melodiya’s Bolshoy list were rare, and those few LPs that did get through seemed to be made from a mixture of warped cardboard and grit. So when in 1955 a shadowy RussoAmerican media executive named Gerald Severn approached Decca with a proposition to underwrite a series of Russian opera recordings in Yugoslavia, the company jumped at the chance, dispatching a top production team led by James Walker to the capital. Most sessions took place overnight in a hastily converted cinema, the results being caught in Decca’s trademark mono FFRR (‘Full Frequency Range Recording’) as well as state-of-the-art stereo.
The resultant LPs were acclaimed for their natural balance and fidelity, and they enjoyed a good run in the catalogue (latterly as ‘Ace of Diamonds’ stereo reissues) before being sidelined in favour of newer, echt-Bolshoy records when relations between Moscow and London began to thaw. Now Eloquence are bringing out all seven sets for the first time on CD, and, thanks to Chris Bernauer’s meticulous remastering we can hear what the fuss was about. Sixty years on, the body and sweetness of sound is remarkable for its time. The balance between voices and orchestra is good, and in these three initial issues Rimsky-Korsakov’s realizations— still quietly preferred by some of us, I dare say, on artistic rather than scholarly grounds—glint and swagger splendidly.
Nor are the performances themselves mere stopgaps. Certainly bargainbasement costs played their part, but the prime reason Severn lighted on Belgrade was the high calibre of the in-house product. This was largely inspired by Oskar Danon, among the most complete operatic conductors of his generation (and an anti-Nazi freedom-fighter to boot) whose single-minded devotion to Slav opera resulted in productions of commanding authority. There is an affectionate pen-portrait of his style in opera (August 1962, pp. 518-20) by
William Marshall, coinciding with the company’s Edinburgh Festival visit: ‘he radiates energy … his dark and deep-set eyes glow with enthusiasm or sparkle with pleasure’.
Enthusiasm and sparkle are certainly uppermost in his crackling Prince Igor, which fairly sweeps us over potential potholes in Borodin’s rocky operatic road. The oriental centre (played complete) has special drama, the barbaric roughness of its choral tableaux imaginatively contrasted with the sophisticated Russian outer acts. There may be better-played Polovtsian Dances, but few have such visceral impact. The Mussorgsky sets are conducted by Danon’s deputy Krešimir Baranović, pedestrian in comparison, but always allowing the singers space to inhabit their roles. His stately Khovanshchina likewise boasts a full text, and though Boris Godunov—alone recorded in Zagreb, under Severn—is missing both the first scene of the Polish act and St Basil’s Cathedral, that at least fits it neatly onto two well-packed CDs.
The all-Serbian casts prompt very positive feelings. Across three operas there are inevitably weak links, notably a Pimen in Boris who is frail in the wrong sense; and though Žarko Cvejić paints his gallery of drunken monks, princes and khans in the old, bold Russian way, he lacks the solid brushwork of Reizen or Pirogov. What strikes me generally is the modernity of the singing, a confidence that cleanly delivered notes and texts will do the work, without too much reliance on vocal acting. Miroslav Čangalović may not be the most theatrical Boris or Dosifey, but he is inside both roles and delivers them movingly, with reserved power. A sensual Konchakovna and Marina, Melanija Bugarinović also gives us an imposingly adamantine Marfa. Coming to the tenors, Drago Starc is a lyrically appealing Golitsin, while Miroslav Brajnik’s ardent, proud Pretender could scarcely be bettered. Best of all is the baritone Dušan Popović,
Opera, December 2018