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Sergei TANEYEV (1856-1915)
Oresteia - A Musical Trilogy (1894 rev. 1900)
Agamemnon, King of Argos - V. Chernobayev (bass)
Clytemnestra, his wife - L. Galushkina (mezzo)
Aegisthus, his cousin - A. Bokov (baritone)
Electra, daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra - T. Shimko (soprano)
Orestes, son of Agamemnon & Clytemnestra - I. Dubrovkin (tenor)
Cassandra, a Trojan prisoner - N. Tkachenko (soprano)
Apollo Loxias - A. Savchenko (tenor)
Pallas Athena - L. Ganestova (soprano)
Watchman - S. Frolov (bass)
Slave - M. Pushkaryov (bass)
Choir and Orchestra of the Belorussian State Bolshoi Theatre of Opera/Tatiana Kolomiytseva
rec. 1965 - no other details or location given
MELODIYA MELCD1002277 [77:45 + 72:10]

In many ways this could be a very short and simple review. If this work already features in your collection stop here because with almost complete certainty I can say this will be the same recording. If you do not know or have not heard this work and have an interest in late 19th century Russian opera this is a must and indeed if any opera from that time appeals this is well worth a listen. There are many works by minor composers and many minor works by major composers that languish as footnotes in the history books but there is a powerful argument to suggest that Taneyev's Oresteia is one of those rare examples of a major - possibly the most major in this instance - work by a significant composer.

Taneyev laboured on the work for some twelve years (seven intensively) between 1882 and its eventual premiere in 1895 and then devoted further work to its revision following the lukewarm reception of the first version. Before writing more, I strongly recommend readers with an interest to seek out Dr Anastasia Belina's doctoral thesis, "A Critical Re-Evaluation of Taneyev's Oresteia" which was submitted to the University of Leeds in 2009 and can be viewed online. This seems to be the only extended study of the piece. Given the brevity of the CDs accompanying liner most of the comments here - and reference to the libretto of which the CDs have none - are courtesy of Dr. Belina's work.

Belina makes the point that Taneyev's Oresteia is all but unique in Russian operatic literature. No other major composer at that time turned to ancient Greece for subject matter - Mussorgsky's abortive incidental music for King Oedipus is the nearest and away from Russia only Berlioz's The Trojans is comparable. Although Taneyev was a pupil and close friend of Tchaikovsky, they had very different musical ideals and goals. Tchaikovsky, a natural storyteller and illustrator in music was totally at home in the theatre. Taneyev, with a greater affinity for form and structure seems less of a born opera composer - although Dr Belina makes a powerful and effective counter-argument for this rather sweepingly dismissive statement.. He got around this by creating characters in this opera who are more classical archetypes rather than the flesh and blood of an Onegin let alone a Mimi or Rodolfo - La Bohème was premiered in 1896. Likewise the drama - powerful though it is - is the impersonal battle of man and fate rather than the modern (circa 1900) psychological neuroses of say Elektra, only eight years away in 1903. In relation to other operas produced in Russia at much the same time, it avoids the fairytale style of Rimsky-Korsakov or the nationalistic focus of Borodin let alone Tchaikovsky's more intimate human dramas. However, Dr Belina notes a parallel with Wagner in his use of leitmotifs and in his depiction of the interaction between Gods and mortals.

The music is relatively backward-looking for 1895 too - strongly diatonic with several hymnlike sections for both chorus and soloists that stick in the memory for their foursquare tunefulness. Popular opinion in 1895 was that the work lacked real drama - hence the revisions to spice things up - and critically there was a concern regarding how Taneyev had condensed three major Greek tragedies into two and a half hours of music. On the latter I cannot comment having no knowledge at all of the original but it strikes me that the libretto is rather successful at keeping the drama flowing and that within each of the three acts - each named after the corresponding original play - Taneyev finds a good range of contrast and dramatic ebb and flow. Central to this are the roles allotted the chorus. Each act features extended choral contributions and these are a major feature and attraction of the work. Musically these hark back to the 'epic' use of the chorus in works such as Boris Godunov.

So to this specific performance. Dr Belina notes that it is one of just two ever recordings. The earlier one was made in 1958 played by the Leningrad Philharmonic. The later one, re-released here, is from 1965. There seems to be some confusion over the actual recording date. This Melodiya set states 1965 as the recording year. Dr Belina mentions 1976 in her preamble to her thesis but later corrects this to 1966 but released on - initially - DG in 1976 (3 LPs: 2709 097) and again on Olympia (on CD OCD195) in 1988. The earlier date is surely correct as it came after the last theatrical staging of the opera given by these same artists culminating in a tour and performance at the Kremlin in 1964. I mention this simply because of the impact this has on one's assessment of the technical recording quality. For a fifty year old recording this is remarkably good. Yes, some allowance needs to be made for the very up-front positioning of the solo voices and yes there is some distortion and congestion at the largest climaxes but I would happily trade both of those flaws for the sheer vibrancy and dynamism, of all the performers, orchestra, soloists and chorus, that has been captured. In fact the detail of the recording, the spatial placement of players and singers is remarkably good particularly in comparison to some later Melodiya-sourced recordings that could be painfully close and crude. This is very much an old-school Russian performance. Singers and orchestra are red-blooded and fervent. The voices have an unmistakably Slavic character that many will not like but I find wholly engaging and appropriate. Particularly impressive are the performances of Clytemnestra by mezzo soprano L. Galushkina and the title role of Orestes by tenor I. Dubrovkin. Especial credit too to the conducting of Tatiana Kolomiytseva - praised in the Soviet press back in 1964 quite rightly for her pacing of the score and the complete conviction of her interpretation.

The recording notes that this is an 'edited' version of the score. Dr Belina discusses in fascinating detail the battles Taneyev fought to maintain his score intact. One of the major revisions was to cut the work from three hours playing time to two and a half. It seems that this 1964 performing version introduced further trimmings although the total running time is very close to that two and a half hours. The vocal score - with libretto in German and the original Russian - can be found on IMSLP. I have not used that to see what the extent of these 1964 re-workings are. Obviously, a modern as-complete-as-possible version would be of considerable value but given that is highly unlikely, this performance richly deserves its place in the catalogue. Almost none of the music in this work will be familiar to even the specialist collector. The only excerpt with any wider fame is the orchestral entr'acte, Apollo's Temple at Delphi in the third part. There are recordings from Svetlanov on Melodiya, Ashkenazy on Ondine and Sanderling on Naxos. Important to note that the Op.6 Overture of the same name by Taneyev is not a prelude to this work but a separate work written by the composer which includes some of the later work's themes. Having been less than overwhelmed by Taneyev's choral writing in a recent two disc set from Melodiya conducted by Svetlanov, I am quite surprised how much more effective and dramatic his writing is here - it is something of a minor revelation.

This re-release is presented in a cardboard gatefold with the two CDs opening out and the liner tucked into the right-hand sleeve. Documentation is minimal; three languages - Cyrillic, English and French with a cast list and track-listing, brief description of the work's genesis and a synopsis. Thank goodness for the internet, IMSLP and Dr Belina's thesis because without those resources the scale and achievement of Taneyev's work would be less discernible. Fortunately the strength of the performance and recording outweighs the lack of supporting material. Indeed, it could be argued that this performance enshrines an important artistic document both historically and musically.

Nick Barnard



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